This is the oldest castle-state residence in Ukraine. Some kind of Kyivan Rus “Mezhyhirya“. Lubart’s Castle or the Lutsk castle is rarely seen covered with snow. After all, winters in Volhynia are more wet than snowy. However, the current custodians of the prince’s manor assure: in winter it is completely different, and tourists love it even more. As soon as the winter sun goes beyond the horizon, mystical stories begin here. It was in winter, almost six hundred years ago, in the snowy and cold residence of Prince Vytautas, the greatest story of this fortress had happened.
The favorite route to “Lubart’s sanctuary”
“Here it is hot in the summer, and cold in the winter,” Anastasia Markiv, Senior Researcher of the Administration of the State Historical and Cultural Reserve in the city of Lutsk, nods at the Entrance Tower of the castle built in the 14th century.
She often meets tourists here. She says that in winter they see the castle in a different way. Usually, visitors are not in a hurry. They are wandering around the castle’s galleries and looking at century-old bricks. They are warming themselves in museums (there are two of them on the territory of the complex).
Walls of Entrance Tower – Lutsk castle’s central tower, reach 8 meters in width at the base. Then 5. Then 3… When it’s hot, these walls tightly hold the heat. It’s cold here during the winter. People call this tower “Lubart’s sanctuary”.
The Lithuanian prince Lubart, who had built that castle, lived nearby in the palace next to the tower. A wife with three sons also lived with him there.
Obviously, Lubart liked to be alone in this “sanctuary”. It still keeps that special atmosphere.
One of the most famous routes among tourists who come to the Lutsk castle ends with a hike to the top of the Entrance tower. 120 steps up. Then an incredible view of the city opens…
What is the difference between Lutsk castle and all other castles in Ukraine? The historian and researcher of the history of the fortress, Petro Tronevych, says: this is the only castle-metropolitan state residence that has survived in Ukraine. Some kind of Galicia-Volhynian “Mezhyhirya”. All other castles are either regional or private. Galicia-Volhynian principality inherited statehood from Kyivan Rus. In the 14th century, Dmytro-Lubart, son of Gediminas was elected the ruler of this state.
“After the death of Lubart’s wife, Volhynian princess (in 1349), the Polish and Hungarian kingdoms formed a coalition and started the campaign against Volhynia. As a result, Lubart moved the capital of the principality from the ancient city of Volodymyr to Lutsk and began to build the castle as a state residence,” says Petro Tronevych, now the head of the Department of Cultural Heritage Protection of the Lutsk City Council.
What’s interesting: earlier in the same place a wooden castle had been built. The story of its appearance dates back to the 10th (!) Century. From 920 to 980, city’s jewelers lived on a hill over Styr River in Lutsk. Subsequently, Prince Volodymyr built capital in Volhynia (instead of the ancient city of Volyn, which once was in the territory of present Poland) – the city of Volodymyr. And on the road from Volodymyr to Kyiv lands, he had built several ostrogs (small forts – translator’s note). At first, there were just small shafts. Ostrog over the river in Lutsk was important in terms of defense. That was the place where the prince could stop for a sleep on the road.
Subsequently, the prince Yaroslav immediately built a castle made of chopped wooden pieces. From 12th to 14th century it was wooden. And only Lubart began the replacement of fragile materials with masonry.
Most of the bricks, from which these walls were erected, are bricks from the castle of the Polish king Casimir in Volodymyr. After the death of Casimir Lyubart seized the city of Volodymyr for himself. As for his fortress, he ordered to disassemble it, because he was building a new one.
They excavated a town of jewelers and… didn’t save it
When excavations were ongoing in the Lutsk castle in the 90s, archaeologists managed to find the old shaft. These were the remnants of Volodymyr’s castle. At a depth of 7 meters, archaeologists dug out six workshops of ancient jewelers.
“Back then we deepened into an extremely mysterious world. Cone-shaped stoves were 90, 70, 60% preserved. We found casting molds for women’s jewelry that were made of white stone, from that very limestone, which was in the foundations of the castle. There were also crucibles to melt metal (cone-shaped glasses in which metal was melting). We wanted to cover our excavation with wood and make an entrance there so that workshops could be accessed… But then the hryvnia was introduced, and it was very expensive. I recall that we needed two thousand hryvnias for these works. At that time – an unreal sum of money. The shaft was covered, we tried to save it, but powerful autumn rains had commenced and it was ruined, recalls Petro Tronewych.
The ethnographer himself is one of those who had the fortune to participate in serious studies of the castle’s history, which began in the ’70s and peaked in the ’80s. He recollected these walls brick by brick.
“For the first time, I saw it in the 73rd. I was still a student back then. It has already been in the process of restoration, but it looked like a ruin. Trees were growing around. Inside as well. Even in the ’80s, when I was already working for the reserve, access to the castle was free. And very often its yard was a place for the drunkards. Therefore, the garden was flourishing inside (several fruit trees still exist here and even bear fruits – author’s note). Every Monday, we were taking a truck full of bottles and garbage,” the man recalls.
The only tower with a fireplace was the Lutsk archive
Lutsk Castle has three towers. In addition to Entrance tower, there is also Bishop’s one. Built by Prince Vytautas. It was kept and armed by a bishop. After all, in the castle, there was the bishop’s residence. In this very place the oldest Lutsk temple was located – the Church of John the Apostle, built in 1175 – 1180 (subsequently it became a cathedral).
The temple can be seen today the way it used to be. Archaeologists have unearthed it. As well as an ancient burial ground. Now tourists have access to excavated ruins. For centuries the cathedral actually got down the ground. Among the unique things, there are remnants of 13th century’s frescos.
The coldest in the prince’s residence is the so-called Styr Tower. Perhaps it’s cold there because its walls go straight to the Styr River, which now washes the castle from one side (once there was water around the fortress). Its construction was completed by Lithuanian prince Švitrigaila, who for some time was the master of the residence. Thus sometimes it is called Švitrigaila’s Tower. It was the Lutsk walls where Švitrigaila died, although the prince was buried in Vilnius.
In the 17th century, the tower was completed and covered with a tent roof. This is the only tower where a fireplace is installed. Today’s owners of the castle dream to clean it and light it once again. For now, there was no fire for a hundred or even more years.
Švitrigaila’s Tower played a significant role not only in the history of Lutsk but also in the history of Ukraine. There was not only the office of the castle but also its archive.
Actually, in order to keep papers in proper conditions, and in order to make work in these walls comfortable for people, a heating system was set up.
Fireplace. Huge iron chests, in which books were stored with attached documents (so-called record books). Embrasures. To this place, as to the administration, Lutsk citizens went with their problems. After all, the castle was an administrative court center for a long time. As of 1848, there were 1167 books like this. At that time the Kyiv archaeological commission worked in Volhynia, and among its participants, there was Taras Shevchenko. Scientists say there were more than a million documents in the Lutsk castle.
Papers were taken to the capital. Some of them were studied, arranged, and later they became a part of the collection “Archive of Southwest Russia.” These volumes are digitized in the New York Public Library, and now they are available to any Lutsk citizen.
In winter, the Styr Tower is closed.
Winter 1429. Where’s the crown of Vytautas?
In January 1429 the Lutsk castle lived through the event that hadn’t been seen before and won’t be after. Back then the castle was the residence of Prince Vytautas.
After receiving the opportunity (and a promise from the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, King Sigismund I of Luxembourg) to be crowned, Vytautas gathers a congress of monarchs in Lutsk. Now it is often compared to the EU summit. They conduct parallels. And various parties in the premises of the castle are devoted to the Congress. At the diplomatic meeting, they discussed topical issues of the then Central-Eastern Europe.
At that time, Lutsk was some kind of the geographical center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It was convenient to get to the city. In January, the heads of European states arrived at the residence. Snow and cold couldn’t stop them. According to rough estimates, there were up to 15 thousand people. This happened at the time when in the city lived only 5 thousand inhabitants.
The main events took place in the castle. Feasts, different events, and negotiations lasted for the whole month. But “something went wrong” and the monarchs didn’t crown Vytautas, and postponed this event until 1430.
Local historians say that the magnificent crown was made for the prince and sent to Lutsk. That crown disappeared. The most favorite story of the Lutsk castle historians (and hence tourists) is about the mysterious crown of Vytautas, which everybody dreams to find.
Melted down? Stolen? Shredded into pieces?
“I believe that this discovery is still ahead, and once scientists will be able to shed light on this story,” Anastasia Markiv smiles.
She has an incredible legend about this case. Markiv says that the crown was divided into pieces and taken as souvenirs by monarchs that winter. And one part was buried in the Styr Tower. That very tower, where it is cold, and by the way, falcons make their nests.
“When Vytautas died (and he passed away a little bit after the congress), he could not bear that he hadn’t lived to see his coronation. His ghost settled down in the Styr Tower, for he realized that the crown was there. So at the top of this tower, next to the three small firing ports, every time when the sun sets over Lutsk, there is a strange twinking. So this is the ghost of Vytautas. Therefore, the castle is closed in winter for visitors at 5 pm, and in the summer at 7 pm, that is as soon as the sun goes down. In order for people not to see that blinking and do not disturb the ghost,” she says.
Whether it is true or not, every decent city should have its legends.
The first independent Christmas and New Year at Lubart’s
“We love our castle in winter. Employees even have such a tradition: at the end of the day, not rush back home, but walk around. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it prompts you to think, hold your breath. There is one more thing that distinguishes this castle from any other one in Ukraine: there have never been bloody battles, there is no blood here. Only the oldest church in Lutsk, hence a very sacred place. Many guests say that they want to come back here because there is good energy,” Anastasia convinces.
There was no battle. However, during the Second World War in the castle, there was one of the German stalags Lutsk. Historians say that from October 1941 to June 1942, 10.5 thousand prisoners of war died from hunger or illnesses in a stalag.
Therefore, the history of these walls is different. Once, for example, small members of the Kosach family liked to sit under the walls of the castle. The house where Lesya Ukrainka lived with her family is very close by. And under the Styr tower on one of the bricks, Olha Kosach herself… scribbled the autograph there. And it is still there.
The fortress was protected from the destruction only due to the fact that it was built wisely. According to Petro Tronewych, under the sole of the foundation, there is a layer of stones, which filters the water and sends it beyond the residence. The walls themselves are monolithic. On the one hand, a brick, on the other – too, and inside a mixture of smashed bricks and special cement. Therefore, they weren’t dismantled by collective farmers: because brick from such a wall is not so easy to take…
In the 90s, someone expressed the idea to open the Lutsk castle on New Year’s Eve. Nothing like that was seen at that time… By 2018 that night was a bright memory.
Back then at the rise of Independence, when Lutsk patriots began to resist the Soviets, it was under the walls of the castle that they carried out the first great Christmas celebrations. Before that Christmas, nobody celebrated Christmas at the official level. The castle square was a landmark back then, it was here that in spite of the prohibitions the first mass rallies for the Independence took place.
This year the castle didn’t sleep on New Year’s Eve again. Thousands of people. Show. Feast – as it was during the congress of monarchs in the winter of 1429… And the ghost of Vytautas was quietly hiding in the embrasure of the Styr’s Tower and keeping his crown away from the strangers.
Text by Olena Livitska
Photo by Iryna Kabanova