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History of Tallinn

History of Tallinn

Tallinna vaade, esiplaanil Vana Toomase tuulelipp raekoja tornis, veidi eemal Niguliste kirik, taustal vanalinn

Photo: Kaupo Kalda,

Tallinn before written sources

It is not easy to determine the beginning of Tallinn's history. The location probably attracted attention as a suitable port area long before first written sources mentioned a settlement there, but all historians have is archaeological data.

The first traces of settlement in the territory of today’s Tallinn come from the Härjapea river basin at Keldrimäe but those cannot be directly linked to the city. The early history of Tallinn begins in suburban Iru, where a castle together with a nearby settlement was built at the end of the first millennium. The castle was abandoned for unknown reasons at the end of the 11th century and Lindanise (Kolyvan in Russian sources) castle was built sometime later on today’s Toompea hill—this was the centre of the ancient Rävala county (hence the German name for Tallinn: Reval). The castle was most probably only to offer refuge in case of enemy attacks and included no permanent settlement in the 13th century.

The trade route in the Gulf of Finland became more widely used during the 9th and 10th centuries and thereby increased the importance of the Tallinn port site. There might have been seasonal settlements of Scandinavian and Russian merchants at the location of today’s lower town at the beginning of the 2nd millennium but there is no clear evidence either from archaeological or written sources.

Tallinn under the King of Denmark and German Order

The first reliable data about Tallinn dates back to the Chronicle of Latvian Henrik. The Chronicle describes the Danish fleet led by King Valdemar II that landed near Lindanise castle in June 1219. The Danish landing was part of the German-Scandinavian colonization of Livonia and Estonia in the course of which the German crusaders invaded Latvian and Southern and Central Estonian territories, as well as Saaremaa, and the King of Denmark invaded Northern Estonia. According to the Chronicle, there was a battle at the location of the future Tallinn on June 15, 1219, where the Danes got a difficult victory. The legend says that the battle luck turned its face to the Danes after a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky—the Danneborg, the state flag of Denmark today. The Danes established their stone castle on Toompea, and Lund head bishop Andreas Sunesen became the first regent of Denmark in Tallinn.

From 1227 to 1238 Tallinn and Northern Estonia were governed by the Order of the Brotherhood of the Swords who had temporarily gained power from the Danes. There must have already been a small settlement at the bottom of the castle at that time. Around 1230 German merchants invited by the Brotherhood of the Swords arrived in Tallinn from Gothland. This arrival is considered an important event in the making of the body of residents in Tallinn. Tallinn together with the Northern part of Estonia was returned to the Danish crown by the Stensby Treaty, the deal being mediated by the legate of the Pope Guillelmus of Modena. Ten years later, on May 15, 1248, King of Denmark Erik IV Adraraha gave Tallinn the Lübeck Rights that bound Tallinn to common legal space with medieval German merchant towns. The letter of rights also mentions representatives of the Town Council which proves that the lower town must have had some kind of a local government at that time. Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League at the end of the 13th century, and during the next couple of hundred years performed an important role in the relations of the Hanseatic with the merchants of Russia, especially Novgorod.

Tallinn land master changed in the middle of the 14th century. Forced by difficulties in internal policy and lack of money, the King of Denmark decided to sell his Northern Estonian lands together with Tallinn to the German Order. After years of preparation, the deal was finalized in 1346. The next year, in 1347, the Order granted the right of the government of these territories to its Livonian branch. Tallinn became an Order town that primarily meant a change of power at Toompea. Instead of the regent of Denmark Tallinn was now governed by a Comptoir of the German Order. Master Goswin von Herike of the Livonian Branch of the German Order adopted the early privileges of Tallinn already on November 4, 1346, and town life continued the way it had always been. The town was governed by the Town Council elected from the most influential and richest residents, mostly merchants (the Town Council chose its members). At first, only half of the representatives in the Town Council dealt with town matters, they were called the sitting Town Council (sitzender Rat), and the other half was called the old Town Council (alter Rat). After a year the roles changed. As being a representative in the Town Council was a position of honour, then they needed a year off to deal with their businesses. From the middle of the 15th century till the end of its existence, the Town Council was usually comprised of 4 burgermeisters, 14 representatives of the Town Council, and 1 town lawyer. The members of the Town Council were now working permanently, not in shifts.

Merchants and representatives of the most profitable crafts were mostly Germans, generally from Westfahl and Rheinland, and at least half of the townsfolk were Estonian, who are sometimes mentioned as town residents in the 14-15th century (there is no data about the 13th century). At the end of the Middle Ages town residency was restricted for Estonians, mainly because of the high resident fee. As the town needed working hands, then country folks migrated to town which in turn led to conflicts between landowners in town and the nearby areas. The number of inhabitants grew as trade grew and the town developed. As the estimated number of inhabitants in Tallinn in the middle of the 14th century was less than 1000 people, then in the late middle ages the population of Tallinn was already 6000-7000.

Buildings-wise, the town of the 13th century cannot be compared to the town in the late Middle Ages. The initial fortifications only comprised a small area around today’s Town Hall Square. The zone at that time did not include either the Dominican Convent between today’s Vene and Müürivahe Streets or the Cistercian Convent near today’s Kloostri Street. The town wall circle in its later form was established in the 14th century and the major boom of town construction (that gave the main buildings their medieval exteriors that are partly preserved even today) spread in Tallinn only in the 15th century. The new Town Hall was completed in 1404, the Great Guild building in 1410, and the Olavi Guild building in 1422. The Great Fire burst out in the lower town in 1433, and this meant a new wave of construction. The establishment of hill fortifications in front of the town wall was begun in the 16th century.

Trade in Tallinn was based on privileges received already during the 13th century. Tallinn got the coining right in 1265 and the warehousing right in 1346, this meant that no merchandise could be transited through the town without using the local merchants as intermediates. Hence, the residents of Tallinn got a significant portion of the trade between Western Europe and Novgorod. The role of Tallinn in the trade and politics of the Eastern Baltic grew even more after the town of Visby was destroyed by Denmark in 1361. The high time of Tallinn as a medieval Hanseatic town was the 15th century. The closing of the Novgorod Hanseatic office in 1494 affected trade in Tallinn negatively but the town managed to liven trade up in the middle and end of the 16th century.

The biggest merchants in Tallinn were members of the Great Guild, younger single merchants who belonged to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, representatives of more honourable handicraft skills to the Kanuti Guild, and representatives of simpler handicraft skills to the Olavi Guild. Additionally, there were several religious-social associations in Tallinn. Sources mention the brotherhoods of Holy Flesh, Gertrud, Hiob, 10,000 Knights, Antonius, Victor, Rochus, and Michael. Mary Guild and Anna Brotherhood were active at Toompea.

All the most significant clerical establishments were founded in the 13th century: Niguliste Church was established in 1230, Oleviste Church is mentioned for the first time in 1267, the Dominicans moved to lower town from Toompea at the end of 1240-s and started to build out St. Cathrine Convent, the Cisterian Mihkli Nunnery was established in the middle of the century. Tallinn Bishop residing at Toompea governed the whole of Northern Estonia, clerically he was under the reign of Lund Head Bishop.

Dome School was active at Toompea probably already during the 13th century, first written records of the school date back to the beginning of the 14th century. There was a school at the Dominican Convent at the same time, from the beginning of the 15th century also at Oleviste Church.

The near-to-town leprosarium or Jaani hospital was first mentioned in 1237. The Holy Ghost hospital together with a chapel probably existed in some form already in the 13th century, although written sources mention the Holy Ghost hospital only at the beginning of the 14th century.

At the beginning of the 15th century St. Brigit Nunnery was established East of the town (Pirita Nunnery); today its ruins are known as a magnificent sample of Tallinn's medieval architecture.

First Lutheran preachers came to Tallinn in the beginning of 1520-s and in the autumn of 1524 plebs ransacked Oleviste and Holy Ghost Churches and Dominican St. Cathrine Church. The Town Council tried to constrain the spontaneous spoliation and obtain control over money matters of churches. The Dominican Convent was dissolved in January 1525. Little by little church life was reorganized according to ideas carried by reformation. The Town Council had already before a good overview of the finances of churches through its secular wardens but now it was decided to form a so-called common treasury (Gemeine Kasten)—to function as a centralized fund for social welfare and source of pay for churchwardens. The Lutheran church was step by step starting from the second quarter of the 16th century. A library was founded at Oleviste Church in 1552 and became the first public library in Tallinn.

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Last modified 13.05.2024