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History of the Häme Castle


The Häme castle has experienced glory and decay over the space of seven centuries. The thick walls still show the signs of different times and house old ruined sections. The Häme Castle has been restored to its old design to let the visitor wander through medieval rooms.

The establishment of the castle
It is thought that the decision to establish Häme Castle was made as a result of the Swedish earl Birger's "crusade" into this part of Finland. No one is absolutely sure when this expedition took place; both 1239 and 1249 have been suggested as possible dates. At any rate, the castle's oldest sections almost certainly date from the end of 1200’s. One important goal of the Swedish expedition had been to link the province of Häme more tightly to the Swedish realm. This aim, which was influenced by foreign policy considerations, required the maintenance of a strong military fortress. Of equal importance, however, was the desire to tax this relatively wealthy region, and thus to set certain demands concerning the exterior forms of rule.
Häme Castle and its curtain wall as seen from the south. The Gate Tower is on the left and the Garderobe Tower is visible behind the round gun tower on the right. Sketch made in the late 17th century for Erik Dahlberg’s book Suecia Antiqua et Hodierna. Photo: National Board of Antiquities

Häme Castle has had a long history with many ups and downs. But it has justifiably been said that construction work has continued for 700 years, right up to the present. In this view the extensive restoration work, carried out in recent decades, is a continuation of the building process begun in medieval times.

The fortified camp
The oldest part of the castle is known as the fortified camp. This included a square-shaped greystone wall, with defensive towers at the northern, eastern and southern corners. The walls were 33 metres long and about 7 metres high. It is thought that this fort included wooden shelters for the garrison, although no traces of these have been found. In addition to the walls, impressive sights in this part of the castle include a 12-metre-deep well which, although now dry, can still be seen near the east corner of the fortress.

The greystone fort 
The fortified camp, designed primarily for defence, was perhaps built with later additions already in mind. In the final decades of the 13th century, life at the fort was considerably improved through the construction of a series of vaulted brick rooms just inside the walls. Among these is the main hall, which is currently available for banquets. This hall is the nation's oldest existing banqueting room in secular use. The entire first floor of the castle is in fact a unique reminder of medieval life in Finland.
A gaming board and gaming pieces found at Häme Castle. Various kinds of board games were popular in the Middle Ages. Excavation find from Häme Castle. Photo: Terho Aalto

The brick castle
New trends in fortress architecture and changes in the nation's political status brought Häme Castle to a new phase in the 14th century. Architecturally the aim was for a grander effect, and defence features were now redesigned to take into account the development of firearms.

The latter half of the 14th century and the following century are known as the "brick castle" period. This refers to the fact that brick was for all practical purposes the only material used for exteriors. This made it possible to construct rooms in a more refined style and to provide decorative details on exteriors. The brick ornamentation visible in the courtyard is unique in Finland. The vault of the great hall or "king's hall" also reflects the high level of medieval architecture.

Brick was a relatively little-used building material in Finland during the Middle Ages, and Häme Castle also has an exceptionally important significance in this respect.

The period from the 14th century to the early decades of the 16th century played an important role in the history of the castle. Many of the names of Finland's most influential families are linked to this era in the castle's history. Although material objects related to these personages have not come down to us, a visit to the castle nevertheless provides a fascinating contact with this bygone period of grandeur.

A time of transition
King Gustav Vasa's efforts to reform administration in the kingdom of Sweden also affected Häme Castle. Once the residence of mighty nobles, the castle gradually became a strictly supervised crown fortress. Although defence capability was improved somewhat through the construction of two strong gun towers, the castle nevertheless began a slow process of decline. Fraternal disputes among the dukes during the Vasa era, which reached a climax in the War of the Clubs, also affected Häme Castle, and the old south tower was destroyed in an explosion of the gunpowder storage room s during in 1599. Major repair work was subsequently carried out, one result of which is the existing Lutheran chapel on the third floor of the so-called Gate Tower. Gustav II Adolf and his wife, Queen Maria Eleonora, visited the castle in 1626. The King's Hall and the Queen's Chamber were named in honour of this event. Governor-General Per Brahe visited the castle in 1639, at which time he also established the town of Hämeenlinna.

From granary to prison
In the altered conditions following the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, the military importance of Häme Castle also grew momentarily. An effort was made to repair the castle's defences, and the old main fort was transformed into a grain store. A new Crown’s bakery, a part of which has now been remodelled into a tourist cafe, was also built for the use of the army.

By order of King Gustav III, the town of Hämeenlinna was moved to its current site in the 1770's. Extensive building work was also undertaken at this time to repair the old walls and ramparts to bring them in line with modern fortress design. Old storeroom buildings from the 18th century have been restored and put back into use. The gate tower building, which was originally a prison, now houses office facilities. The other buildings contain modern exhibition rooms and tourist -facilities. Rampart construction continued up to the early 19th century, by which time Finland had become part of the Russian empire. The courtyard of the North Polygon offers excellent possibilities for outdoor festivities in summer. The ramparts and the moat offer a unique sight in Finland.
Still long into the 20th century, spring floods could isolate Häme Castle (then a prison) from the town. Photograph from 1902. Photo: Hämeenlinna Historical Museum

From prison to cultural monument
Prisoners have been kept in the castle since the Middle Ages, but in 1837 the main fort was converted exclusively to a prison use according to plans drawn up by the famous architect C.L. Engel. Later on in the 19th century the old storeroom buildings from the 18th century were expanded and new rooms were added for prisoners. After many efforts, restoration work began in 1956 and was completed in 1988.