History of Spilberk Castle

For over seven centuries, Špilberk Castle has dominated the skyline of Brno, a reminder of the safety and protection it provided. However, there have been times in the history of Brno when the fortress inspired fear, and represented oppression for the citizens of the city.

Over the course of the centuries, the importance of Špilberk and the part it has played have changed considerably. From a major royal castle and the seat of the Moravian margraves, it gradually turned into a huge baroque fortress, the heaviest prison in the Austro-Hungarian empire (the infamous „dungeon of the nations“), and then a barracks. Today, Špilberk houses the Brno City Museum, and is one of the most significant cultural centres in Brno. It was certified as a national heritage monument in 1962.

The castle was established around the mid-13th century on fairly low; but rather steep, rocky hill (290 m), rising directly over the historical centre of the town (at about 220 m). Its builder, Czech King Přemysl Otakar II, approached it as a solid pillar of royal power as well as a seat for the rulers of Moravia, worthy of respect. The oldest written records of the existence of the castle relate to the years 1277-1279, when the castle chapels, an assembly held on the castle premises (January 1278) and finally the name of the hill – soon transferred to the castle itself – were documented.

However, Czech rulers were to visit Špilberk only occasionally; the same was true of the young Moravian Margrave Charles, later the Czech king, whose first wife Blanche stayed there in 1337 after being obliged to leave Prague.

Špilberk became the actual castle seat of the Moravian margraves only in the mid-14thcentury, under Jan Jindřich (1350-1375) and his son Jošt (1375-1411). This period, marked by the autonomous rule of the „Moravian“ Luxembourgs, the brother and nephew of King Charles IV, lasted a mere six decades, but definitely constitutes the most significant and splendid, though least known, chapter in the history of the Brno castle. After Jošt’s death, under the last Luxembourg King Sigismund of Hungary, Rome, and later also the Czech lands, and under his son-in-law Albrecht of Austria, to whom Sigismund in 1423 advanced both the rule of Moravia and the castle, Špilberk lost its residential function for good, and its military potential came to the fore. This demonstrated itself fully not only in the course of the Hussite wars, but especially during the struggles between Czech King Jiří of Poděbrady and Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. Jiří’s son, Viktorin of Poděbrady, had his seat at Špilberk as the land „captain“ (hetman), also mentioned in historical sources as the „hetman at Špilmberk“. In 1469, Matthias Corvinus, supported by the town of Brno, managed, after several months of siege, to force the exhausted Czech garrison at Špilberk to surrender on honest conditions, thus acquiring this important strategic point and subsequently the rule of Moravia too.

After the end of the 15th century, the importance of Špilberk fell into rapid eclipse, to be replaced with general decline and steady dilapidation. This major royal castle in Moravia was repeatedly surrendered as security for loans, and the temporary owners cared little for its maintenance. However, the Moravian Estates were well aware of the castle’s sigruficance to both the Moravian land and its capital, observing in 1543 that „through the loss of this chateau, much evil could occur to the Czech kingdom and the Moravian land, and the town of Brno in particular would come to ruin.“ They therefore purchased Špilberk (the „margravial seat“) themselves in 1560, together with the whole demesne, to prevent its intended sale to a foreign buyer, and then promptly sold the castle to the town of Brno. Špilberk remained town property for only sixty years. After the decisive Battle of the White Mountain, in which the rebellion of the Moravian Estates was put down in 1620, it was confiscated by Emperor Ferdinand II and its property reclaimed to the crown.

The castle started to deteriorate again during the Thirty Years’ War, and its relatively negligible garrison of about 40 men hardly testified to the fact that Špilberk might ever again play an important military role either.

However, the situation changed with the partial military occupation of Moravia by the Swedish army, which twice closely threatened the Moravian metropolis, in 1643 and 1645. The fortifications of the castle and the town were speedily restored and improved. The strategic significance of the castle was demonstrated once again when, in 1645, Brno and Špilberk, led by Commander Raduit de Souches, withstood a three-month siege against considerable Swedish odds. It was then gradually – until the mid-l8th century – converted into the most massive and most important baroque fortress in Moravia, making up, as a citadel, a single fortified unit with the equally fortified town. In 1742, it proved to be an impassable obstacle to Prussian King Fridrich II. The military commanders of Špilberk at the time also held the position of Moravian marshals.

A prison had always constituted part of the Špilberk fortress. Shortly after the defeat of the Uprising of the Estates in 1620, the leading Moravian members of this anti-Habsburg „insurrection“ were imprisoned in Špilberk for several years. From the last quarter of the 17th century to the early 1780’s, several high-ranking military personalities were held there, including leading Austrian commanders Bonneval and Wallis and the infamous Franz Trenck, colonel of the Pandours, who died at Špilberk in 1749, as well as dozens of „ordinary“ prisoners sentenced to fortification work.

In 1783, Emperor Joseph II decided that Špilberk should no longer function as a fortress prison and that it should be converted into a civil prison intended for the most hardened criminals. For this purpose, the casemates, parts of the fortress system that had hitherto been insufficiently used, were reconstructed. Their mass cells could hold as many as 200 prisoners, condemned to hard labour within the fortress as well as outside. However, from the mid-1790’s, prisoners who could be labelled „political“ started to appear in the above-ground premises of the Špilberk fortress. Apart from several significant French revolutionaries captured during the coalition wars with France (the most famous being the former postmaster Jean B. Drouet), a group of fifteen Hungarian Jacobins led by the writer Ferenc Kazinczy was especially noteworthy. More than a quarter of a century later (from 1822), specially constructed cells for „state prisoners“ in the northern wing of the former fortress were filled with the Italian patriots who had fought for the unification, freedom and independence of their country. The poet Silvio Pellico, who served a full eight years there, made the Špilberk prison famous all over Europe with his book „My Gaols“.

At this time, Špilberk ceased to be an important military fortress, remaining only a large civil prison through the imperial period. This change was especially facilitated by Napoleon’s French army which, on its departure from occupied Brno in autumn 1809, destroyed essential parts of the Špilberk fortifications. The last large „national“ group of political prisoners at Špilberk consisted of nearly 200 Polish revolutionaries, mostly participants in the Cracow uprising of 1846. In 1855, Emperor Franz Joseph I dissolved the Špilberk prison, and after the departure of the last prisoners three years later, its premises were converted into barracks, which they remained for the next hundred years.

Špilberk entered public consciousness as a centre of tribulation and oppression on two more occasions: for the first time, during the First World War when, together with military prisoners, civilian objectors to the Austro-Hungarian regime were imprisoned there; and for the second time – far worse – in the first year of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Several thousand Czech patriots suffered in Špilberk at that time, some of whom were put to deaths there. For the majority of them, however, Špilberk was only a station on their way to other German prisons and concentration camps. In 1939-41, the German army and Gestapo carried out extensive reconstruction at Špilberk in order to turn it into a model barracks in the spirit of the romantic historicism so beloved of German third reich ideology.

The Czechoslovak army left Špilberk in 1959, which marked a defirute end to its military era. The following year, Špilberk became the seat of the Brno City Museum.

The architectural development of Špilberk can be viewed in direct relation to its changing functions. There were several distinct phases. Only relatively little is left of the original Gothic castle of the 13th-15th century (basically only in the eastern wing), apart from its fundamental character. Among the parts that have best preserved the nearly authentic appearance are some of the ground floor spaces, including the passageway with ornamented stone benches. Two of these spaces include the original ribbed vaults; there is also a remarkable, small, single-storey portal that once connected the gallery with the „royal“ chapel. However, the present distinctly „Gothic“ appearance of the whole eastern wing is a result of a rather problematic and controversial reconstruction, executed – after extensive construction and historical research – in 1995-2000 and designed by Zdeněk Chudárek. Furthermore, the substantial raising of the whole wing, including the mighty roof complex, has also considerably changed the existing skyline of the Brno dominant. On the ground floor of the western wing, archaeologists have revealed part of the foundations of a massive cylindrical tower, which visitors can see at the exhibition on the architectural development of the castle.

The baroque fortress reconstruction, supervised by leading military engineers N. Peroni, L. Rochet and P. Rochepin, as well as by the Brno builder M. Grimm, is now particularly obvious from the largely preserved internal fortification system: ramparts with bastions and ravelins, brick moats with in-built casemates from 1742 and single-storey barracks buildings and other constructions, added to the external wall of the medieval castle throughout its perimeter around the mid-18th century. Another part of the fortification system was a well in the western section of the courtyard, deepened from the original 40 m to 114 m in 1714-1717, together with an adjoining cistern.

The majority of the present buildings – the southern, western and northern wings, as well as the central tract dividing the former large courtyard into two sections – only came into existence with the extensive conversion of the fortress into a prison in the 1830’s. Unfortunately, this radical reconstruction wiped out practically all that remained of the original medieval castle and its later building projects, with the exception of the eastern wing. Špilberk thus acquired its present appearance, which even the relatively extensive reconstruction executed by the German army was not able to alter. Apart from minor additions and complements, they basically unified the castle in a certain architectural manner, and only demonstrated their identity clearly in the interiors (staircase) and historicist details. It was the latest reconstruction in 1995-2000, particularly involving the eastern wing, that substantially interfered with the appearance of Špilberk, so well-known from large numbers of engravings, paintings and old photographs.

At the turn of the second and third millennium, a crucial part of the reconstruction of the castle itself is being brought to a close. In parallel, the Brno City Museum is celebrating 40 years of its location in Špilberk; with new permanent exhibitions as well as occasional displays, it is making the historical and cultural heritage of the city, preserved in the museum collections, accessible to the public. In the summer season, the castle courtyards and other premises come alive with various cultural events, concerts, theatre performances and historical shows, as well as sports competitions. Over 100,000 people visit the museum exhibitions annually, including the casemates. Furthermore, the lookout gallery of the corner tower provides a unique view of Brno and its surroundings. The most important historical monument in the city thus becomes a lively cultural centre, attracting thousands of tourists.