Die Burg Warbeck (Kastre)


  • Anti Selart
  • Andres Tvauri
  • Alar Läänelaid




Medieval Livonia, Medieval Castles, Dendrochronology, Medieval archaeology, Tartu, Pskov, Lake Peipus


Kastre (sometimes called Uue-Kastre) Castle on the north shore of the Emajõgi River has been almost totally destroyed. At one time it belonged to the Tartu bishops, and a trade route connecting the Baltic Sea countries and Russia through Tartu and Pskov ran past the castle. In the Middle Ages, this also marked the actual boundary of the Tartu bishopric, since only unsettled wetlands covered the area between the castle and the lake. The Kastre Castle is mentioned in the written records for the first time in 1392 as a customs checkpoint, in connection with a treaty between the Hanseatic towns and Novgorod. There was a barrier near the castle that was stretched over the river with a rope or chain, which stopped the boats and ships from sailing through without stopping. When the Pskovians launched a military expedition on their lodʼya boats against the Tartu bishopric in 1342, there is no mention of the Kastre Castle. The place name is probably based on the Old Russian word kosterʼ (костеръ), which meant stronghold and has been used as a loan word in the eastern Finnic languages. The German name of Kastre is Warbek, and the current explanation is that this meant “river defence” (Middle German were des bekes). However, were has also meant fish barrier, i.e. a fishing structure built across the flow of the river.

In 1993, the owner of the castle property had the moats around surrounding the castle and outer bailey dredged and widened, which changed their location and appearance notably. The first archaeological studies at the castle were conducted to verify the damage caused by this unauthorised excavation work. In 1994, the profile of the ground exposed by excavator rooting around in the moats was documented. In 2001, the first archaeological excavations took place at the site of the Kastre Castle. There were plans to build a new structure between the walls of the tavern that had been built on the site of the castle in the late 18th and 19th century, and the necessary trenches were dug in the course of the archaeological rescue excavations. Supervision of the construction work, as well as excavation work related the cleanup of the moats and surrounding property, continued for the next few years. Depending on the location, the excavations reached the cobblestone paving that was located 40–120 cm below the prior ground level in the courtyard and interiors of the castle.

In 2001, wood samples were taken from the logs that were revealed on the western slope of the western moat of the Kastre outer bailey, and had been used to fortify the incline. The dendrochronological study shows that the logs were fell after the 1376 growth period (summer). Therefore, the moat of the Kastre outer bailey was probably fortified in 1377. The direct motivation for building the castle may have been the border war between Pskov and the Tartu bishopric that lasted from 1367 to 1371. The main battlefield of the war was Lake Peipsi, and a dispute about the fishing rights in Lake Lämmijärv has been given as the main explanation for the war.

Kastre was a very important medieval fishery centre for the lower Emajõgi River and Lake Peipsi. Here the import of fish was taxed. In the vicinity, one could find the fishing grounds of the Tartu bishop, the Cathedral Chapter, the town of Tartu, monasteries and private manors, as well as of the Teutonic Order. The water and winter roads that ran through Kastre from Tartu toward Russia or Narva comprised an important traffic zone, which the castle controlled. Kastre was the centre of the relevant Tartu bishopric’s administrative division. The bishops are said to have visited the border castle personally on many occasions, so suitable rooms must have existed at the castle. An idea of the castle is provided by plans from 17th century.

The castle was built in at least two stages. Its foundations were built on log floats. First an unusual rectangular building of fieldstones and bricks was built, the longest wall of which was 17,5 metres and the shortest 12 metres; the walls were 2,5 to 2,8 metres thick. The walls on the north and northwest side of the castle were built later against the originally planned walls; whereas the upper parts of the original northern and eastern walls were demolished. A subsequent addition was the cannon tower on the southeast corner of the castle, which is indicted on plans from the late 17th century, and the diameter of which, based on these plans, would have been about 9,5 metres. Considering the location of the walls that have been revealed, most of the tower’s foundation walls have been washed away by the Emajõgi River. Apparently a wooden building was located in the northern part of the castle’s courtyard. The castle was surrounding by a moat that was up to 15 metres wide. It is not possible to determine the exact time of the different stages of construction. From the dendrochronological studies we can conclude that the outer bailey, or at least the area surrounded by moats, is not a later construction but most probably one of the oldest parts of the castle. Bricks typical of the 14th and 15th centuries have been used in the walls of the first construction stage; the addition, based on the dimensions of the bricks, is a later construction. There have been no finds on the entire property that date back to the period before the 15th century.

On the west side of the castle, there is an area that is about 60 metres long and wide, and surrounded by a 10-metre-wide moat. The cultural layer here is only a ten or so centimetres thick. There were probably no stone buildings here; but it’s possible that wooden outbuildings were already located here when it was a bishopric castle. A tavern and outbuildings are indicated on the 17th century plans. In the course of cleaning the moats, wooden shore fortifications came to light in the northeast corner of the outer bailey. There was a small settlement near the castle, which, in 1601, included 21 households – 20 of them fishers and one brewer. A Mary Magdalene chapel is mentioned in 1613 here. A cemetery is located on the western side of the castle, which could have surrounded a chapel.

The Kastre Castle has been repeatedly associated with military events, such as border wars and internal conflicts. In the Livonian War, Kastre was one of the first castles that fell into the hands of the Russians in 1558. Based on the Truce of Yam-Zapolsky, the castle was transferred to Poland in 1582. During the Russo-Swedish War in 1656, the Swedes were able make repairs the castle and make it defensible, and they stationed garrison there. However, it still fell into Russian hands until the Treaty of Kärde was signed in 1661. In the late 17th century, the Swedes planned to completely rebuild the castle. But as of 1704, the castle was still in ruins. After the Great Northern War, being inside the borders of the Russian Empire, the Kastre Castle lost its potential military importance. By the second half of the 18th century, the castle had turned into “a pile of stones”, from which a tavern was built.


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Author Biographies

Anti Selart

Dr. Anti Selart (b. 1973) is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Tartu. He has researched various topics related to the medieval and 16th century history of Livonia, including the relations between Livonia and Russia.

Andres Tvauri

Dr. Andres Tvauri (b. 1970) is a Senior Research Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Tartu. His researched has focused on the Iron Age in Estonia, but he has also dealt extensively with medieval and modern era archaeology.

Alar Läänelaid

Dr. Alar Läänelaid (b. 1951) is Associate Professor in Landscape Ecology at the University of Tartu. He has researched Estonian flora and developed a dating technique for wooden objects by using dendrochronological methods.