The Last Days of the Palace of the Grand Dukes - Orbis Lituaniae

The Last Days of the Palace of the Grand Dukes

The Former Royal Residence – A Refuge for Beggars and Gamblers

“There were the royal rooms were once are now taverns, breweries, illegal gambling houses, loose women and beggars,” wrote art historian Euzebiusz Łopaciński. It is true that the Civilian Military Comission received an offer to establish their quarters in the castle between 1791 and 1792, however they did not look upon this project favourably. They even called the project laughable in their official text on the matter: “He who has been in Vilnius knows that the Jagiellon Castle [palace] has not only stood dilapidated for two hundred years already, but every day is sinking deeper and deeper into its ruins.” The state highly doubted that chances would arise to once again use the building.

Do You Know?

The residential buildings of the Lower Castle, which were destroyed and dilapidated after the Muscovite occupation in the middle of the 17th century, were living out their final days in the 18th century. It was already starting in the second half of the 17th century that they become the home of new inhabitants, with their number gradually growing. The inhabitants, who set up taverns there, rebuilt and bricked up the premises, raised animals there, and also kept gardens, ruined the palace and destroyed historically authentic parts of it. It was doubtful that palace that existed in the second half of the 18th century could be rebuilt or used again for residential purposes.

The state of the palace was deplorable. It had no windows, doors, or roof, and the gates were leaning. It was in this state that was captured by the watercolours of Pranciškus Smuglevičius (Franciszek Smuglewicz). You can see not only the high brick walls, but the hovels surrounding it. That is where the last inhabitants of the palace lived.

The castle warden – the last guard of the crumbling palace

According to sources, the capital’s castle belonged to the competency of the Voivode from the times that the GDL had converted to Christianity. However, most of the direct work in the castle was done by the Vilnius district castle warden (horodniczy), who was at the disposal of the voivode. According to old privileges, the duty of the castle warden as to handle the issues pertaining to the castle, oversee its fortification and the tower prison (called the prison of the nobles). As time passed, the significance of the castle territory declined, and the castle overseer’s duty gradually became symbolic. However the castle wardens did maintain influence within the territory of the castle, as it was their jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the private control of spiritual or secular leaders in cities, which had their own officers, administration and court. A number of court cases of castle wardens have survived to the present-day. When the palace started to slowly collapse, the castle warden began approving the sale of buildings to the inhabitants of Vilnius. It’s ironic, but in documents of this sort it was written that the space within these walls was sold “to replenish the Republic’s treasury, and also for the defence of the city.”

A colourful community of lodgers in the palace

It is difficult to say very much about the social status of the inhabitants of the castle palace, as often it is not known if the people had their own property in the palace, if they were permanent inhabitants or if they were simply owners of dwellings.

The nobles had property in the castle palace, and a rather large community of Vilnius city-dwellers (artisans) were living there. Among the artisans, the masons comprised the largest group, along with a number of cobblers, tailors, leather workers, blacksmiths, engravers, and even a member of a orchestra by the name of Butvilas.

The surviving Vilnius tax ledgers show that Vilnius residents that lived in the castle palace payed a low amount of tax for their dwellings, and they did not provide much income. Of course, there are few details about the inhabitants’ way of life. Most often one finds information in sources about the building of new walls, new quarters that appeared, and sometimes also about the tearing down of quarters. These things destroyed what remained of the historically authentic palace. Documents bear witness about an earlier period of the palace. It is written in a sale document issued by the castle warden in 1775 that a court officer, bailiff Motiejus Dūkšta, lived in the location that earlier was the castle tower.

Sources also bear witness to the fact that there were taverns, breweries, and vodka distilleries in the palace.

The territory of the castle was dotted with gardens, and chicken were raised there.

The altercations of the inhabitants of the “royal dormitory”

The people living in the castle sometimes did not get along: they fought, drank, committed fraud, stole and broke the law in other ways. Documents provide much evidence to support this. For example, a 1769 complaint was found concerning GDL artillery officers and soldiers that stole stones from the dilapidated palace. Pieces of the stones fell onto a small manor house below and broke through the roof and into the dining room. There were valuable stones in the dilapidated palace that perhaps were admired by a number of rulers. At the end of the 18th century, they were being stolen at a frenzied pace.

In 1772 tailor and cobbler Mikolaj Szydlowski accused Józef Nowicki, who was the Marshal of the GDL’s Supreme Tribunal and who lived near the castle palace, that he blocked the entrances to the palace with firewood. On a decision of the castellan’s court, it was ordered that the entrances be unblocked. Thus the castle inhabitants could use the entrances for their own needs.

In 1791 mason J. Maczukiewicz had a furnished flat in the Vilnius castle palace. There were stairs and a cellar on the premises, however his neighbour Józef Russman was dissatisfied that J. Maczukiewicz used them. Józef Russman ordered Michał Galenski and cobbler Jan Stetkiewicz from the premises on the ground floor to chop up the stairs. Thus there were wooden stairs in the castle palace, just it is now clear when they were outfitted there.

Unfortunately, the inhabitants of the dilapidated buildings ruined and destroyed them even further. The findings by archaeologists allow us to suppose that the masonry work was carried out in a careless manner. Apparently, the inhabitants of the time understood that the building would be knocked down sooner or later. A part of the collapsing walls were used to build the Vilnius town hall in 1785. A decision was adopted at the beginning of the rule of the Russian Empire to knock down the palace.

Literature: Lopaciński E. Horodnictwo wileńskie w latach 1470–1794, Wilno, 1939.

Domininkas Burba