Medieval Tallinn

  By Rider, 29 May 2006; Revised
Contents »

The Beginning years of Tallinn

As a powerful hanseatic city, Tallinn had a wide autonomy, actually a full independence, as some German Riksstadt or Italian city.

The ancient center that was founded in the 8th or 9th century AD was quite undisturbed until the day the German and Danes came. Although it is known that Tallinn was already then a large trading centre, trading with the Arabs and Byzantines. The Germans built a strategical center at the delta of the Daugava and commissioned attacks from there. The most important part of the German military was the Livonian Brethern of Swords that was helped by thousands of crusaders from Germany.

Disturbing crusades and raids were called upon Estonia but it couldn’t be forced to submit. Novgorod and Pskov supported Estonia with their troops. Grand-Master Volquin and several bishops travelled to Denmark in 1218 to ask the Danes for their help. Valdemar II, the mightiest king in the whole Scandinavia wanted to receive Livonia as his chiefdom and came to Estonia the next year. The pope approved. He even sent a war banner to the king. Later on that developed into Danebrog, the today flag of Denmark.

The Rigans raided North-Estonia as well in that year. They went closely past Tallinn. Such raids weakened the resistance North-Estonians could create against the Danes. The Danes claimed to have come with 1500 ships, and even though the number is clearly exaggerated, it is clear that Valdemar took great care of logistics and supplyment of his troops. They landed at Tallinn and took the castle. They built a partially stone, partially wood castle instead of the one that stood there before. In the 15th of June, the Estonian peasants stormed the Danish camp from all sides and the Danes were beaten. They retreated towards the port. Then a Danish duke returned with fresh battles to battle and took control. Estonians ran where they could and the Danish power remained.

Danes first completed the building of a castle to Toompea and then continued war in Northern Estonia. Valdemar II had left Estonia much earlier but his viceroy was the Archbishop Andreas Sunesen of Lund. In two years, Northern Estonia was brutally converted.

To fulfill the scarce rows of the noblemen, and to move to uninhabited new places, 200 merchants arrived in Tallinn from Gotland in 1230. The merchants founded an assembly, magistry in Latin, and that began to rule the town for centuries to come.

Violence wasn’t useful for the Brethern of Swords. The pope finished his dream of a papal state in Estonia and decided to turn that land to the Danes. Unfortunately, it is unknown how far the development of the city had gone for 1238. Only from 1237, it is known that a hospital was to be built.

It is not clear by which city rights the city existed in the beginning but it is clear that from 1248, the Lubeck city right began to dominate. Each following year, the King of Denmark and the Grand-Master granted these rights to the city. The criminal affairs were judged at Tallinn even though in civilian affairs, Lubeck magistry was the highest judge. The vassals of Toompea were loyal to the land right and knights’ right.

The Harju Rebellion or Jüriöö Rebellion of 1343-1345 made it clear that Denmark was powerless. The King sold Estonia for 19 000 marks to the German Order. The Livonian Order obtained the same lands in the next year for 20 000 marks. This change of lords was good for the economical side of Tallinn. With the reformation, the German Order was secularized and Tallinn was directed into the direct rule of the Livonian Order. The Head of the German Order was the High-Master in Prussia while the Livonian Order was ruled by the Grand-Master from Cesis or Võnnu. After every new Grand-Master was appointed, he came to take the oath of loyalty from Tallinn.


The city needed large territories for buildings and defensive forts as well as for developing economy. The borders of Tallinn pre-danish-conquert have not been saved anywhere, but most probably everyone in nearby villages used those lands. First mention of city borders comes from a scroll of Danish Erik IV in 15th May 1248, in which the citizens of Tallinn gained the Lubeck city rights, the citizens were mulcted of any wounding inside the city borders.

King Erik V Klipping confirmed himself too the borders and forbid to shrink or measure them.

The actual separation and bordering of the city borders happened after 13th August 1265, when on Queen Margaret’s orders a special commission was formed of the vassals and the viceroy of the castle to check and border as was reasonable and to mark the borders that were given to the city and castle by King Valdemar II.

Ordinarily in bordering, acts were created that held the names of those who took part, the directions of the borders, riding territories etc.

From 1371, the size of the city and its territories was 8230 ha and it remained so until 1852. The territory inside the walls was 29 ha and Toompea about 9 ha. With King Erik VI Menved’s emissary Johannes Kanne’s literary order (16th sept. 1310) the City Council of Tallinn was obliged to strengthen the city walls. An abbey was set at a section of the Wall and it was to cover the building of the Wall at their abbey and the Council was authorized to stretch the Wall to the sea if necessary. The Jüriöö Rebellion and conquer of Visby by Denmark forced the Council to lengthen the wall to the sea in the years of 1363-1374. To strengthen the defences of the city, moats were dug and filled with water. A canal, 4 km long, was built in 1345, with permission of the King, from Ülemiste Järv (Ülemiste Lake) to Harju Väravad (Harju Gates) to fill the moat.

The building and development was regulated by Lubeck city rights. The most important part was that if you wanted to build by the street, you had to give plans to the Council. If you didn’t follow the plan, a fine of 3 silver marks was demanded. The wooden buildings were very passible to fire and that’s why the Council fought constantly against constructing wooden buildings and demanded demolishing of those that existed and rebuilding of stone. From the 14th century a collection of Bursbrake’s arrangements contains two alignments that forbid building walls and buildings of wood. With special settings the width and height were pre-established.

The amount of wooden buildings still decreased slowly. Constant danger of fire forced the Council to demand at least the demolition of all wooden barns and stables. For that, on the 6th of Sept. 1482, a polity, that demanded destruction of all such buildings for the Whitsuntide of next year, was made. It also said that the wood must go to the city’s lime-oven for heating.

On the 11th of May 1433, a great fire broke out of thunder and it did great damage. The wooden rooftops had an advantage to catch fire. In the midsummer of 1433 all wooden sheds were took down and all the chimneys checked for safety. It was advised that all citizens would have buckets, ladders and barrels ready in the yard.

Water supply

The downtown was originally supplied with water from Rataskaevu and Vana Tooma corner where the Rataskaevu well is and from a well on the Raekoja plaza. Wealthier citizens were supplied by professional water-carriers, who carried the water with barrels from Karjaallikas and later from the ponds at Harju, Karja and Viru gates.

The canal from Ülemiste Lake to Harju gate (about 4 km) and it’s tributary to the sea (about 1,5 km) were hydrologic accomplishments of their time that successfully used the declivity of the grasslands. The designer and constructer are not named but the builders were citizens who were later named as cordevolk or kordevolk. From the ponds of the mills with wooden frames to the city and creating of public wells was lead by Johannes Bonninghof. He was a citizen of Tallinn and specialized on hydrologic techniques. He also designed Rigan water supply.


Tallinn joining the Hansaetic League provoked the Council to order the widening of the port. With trading the wealth of Tallinn steamed up. The clerics wanted a larger port for Tallinn aswell: they declared a 40-day salvation of sins for everyone that helped building. The harbour at that time consisted of a landing bridge that small ships could board to. Larger vessels (e.g. caravels) were anchored further away. Smaller boats carried the burden to the port from where the carters took it to the storehouses. The importance of the port rose after Visby went broke in 1361. Transit to Russia went now through Tallinn and that required a reconstruction of the port. The cashbooks of the Council show that in 1370’s large construction works took place: a stone hinny and two new landing bridges were built.


From 1219, the higher power in Tallinn was the Danish King through his viceroys. The first viceroys were Andreas, Archbishop of Lund and Tuvo, bishop of Ribe. During the rule of the Brethern of Swords the highest official was the Grand-Master or some other higher captain from the Order. During the second Danish period, the king was replaced by a captain who lived in the castle of Toompea. The captain was helped by royal advisors selected from the vasalls.

The residency of the Knights of Estonia was situated in Toompea. The Bishop of Tallinn lived there as well. The City Council has definitely existed before 1248. Who did the City Council consist of or how it was formed is not known. In the middle of the 14th century, it is known that the Council was made up of 24-26 members. The amplification of the City Council took place only when two or more persons left, not when only one person left. As much as there is known about the past, only the wealthiest tradesmen could candidate to the Council. Handicraftsmen could not candidate, no matter how wealthy they were.

In the middle of the 15th century, the annual changing of members stopped and 14 men remained as patricians.

One member was added to the council in the mid-16th century. He was chosen from the lawyers and he had to be the middleman between the other members. Temporarily, his duties were given to the Secretary of the Council. The Secretary was important, but not one of the Council. In the beginning of the 16th century the board consisted of 19 members by law but of 20 factual members.

The competence was very wide, even unlimited. In 1265, Queen Margaret gave the privilege of approving the ‘foogt’ to the Council.

In 1288 the King forbid the ‘foogt’ and officers from judging the citizens of Tallinn. That meant that the power of the king was only nominal. Even the royal viceroy in Toompea castle wanted to remain in peaceful relations with the lower town. Only once, in 1332, he and his companions fought with the citizens, but the citizens won.

Generally the same things continued with the Grand Masters of the Livonian and German Orders (1346-1561). Only the nobles of Estonia opposed the Council who had institutions, mansions and houses in Toompea. The main reasons of the oppositions were about the peasants. Of the Order, the ‘komtuur’ at Toompea was the lord. He didn’t intervene in city affairs actively nor on his own but acted in the orders of the Grand Masters. No commanding of the Council could even be talked about even though the ‘komtuur’ often exaggerated with the power and bugged the citizens.


The first literary sources about coinage in Tallinn came from 1265, although the people had probably dealt with coining already in 1250.

The main weight of a coin was of one Rigan mark. It was done the same in other Old-Livonian cities. It weighed about 208g.

1 mark = 8 öörs = 24 artigs = 288 penns

1 öör = 3 artigs = 36 penns

1 artig =12 penns

In the second half of the 13th century more than 1800 coins were made.


The breakthrough in Tallinn’s trade was the period of 1227-1238 when the Order ruled it. In 1230, 200 merchants from Visby arrived on the call of the Order. These men were used to get trading in over man hands and to stop Danish merchants and to change trade into a German monopoly. These purposes were followed with a killing of Papal emissaries and to get ransom from the imprisoned. The citizens of low-town were razed and plundered in 1233. The Germans wanted to ruin Estonians. The money robbed was worth 15000 marks of silver or 3 tons of silver. In comparison, in 1346 the Danish king sold the province of Estonia with cities and castles to the German Order for 19000 marks. The German merchants dominated through the second Danish period too. Until the 12th century, light Viking boats were used in the Baltic Sea. In war raids: the speedier; and in trading: wider and larger ships were used. Only after Lubeck fell to Germans, the larger and heavier ‘koge’ was started to be used.

The Viking ships moved with oars and could be landed everywhere or with square sails but the cog moved with their large sails and needed ports and safe anchor places. Still, the cog had great military advantages and became to dominate in the Baltic Sea.

With favorable winds the cog moved fast. It took 6-12 days to travel from Tallinn to Lubeck. Trade travels took much more time and that meant that you could count with 2 to 4 travels in a year. From further places, ships just made one travel.

As Narva was better situated for trading with Russia, Tallinn had to force Narva out. The best point for Tallinn was that it was in the Hansaetic League whilst Narva was not. The belonging to the Hansaetic League gave Tallinn the support of other Baltic Sea and North Sea trade cities. The best advantage was that Tallinn received a storage house in Novgorod. On the 22 Feb of 1346 Hansaetic declared that any ship to Novgorod must pass Tallinn, Pärnu or Riga. That means that Narva was left out of competition, and Tallinn didn’t let it join the League.

Every merchant could go to Novgorod once a year: either with a ship in summer or by roads in winters. Who came in winter had to return before spring and who came with a ship had to return before winter. There were limits on the amount of items you could take to Novgorod. No merchant could bring more items than for 1000 silver marks in a year. In the 15th century, Hansaetic forbid any other than themselves of trading in Russia. All those that disregard the proscription were imprisoned. In 1417, Hansaetic forbid the Dutch from trading in Russia.

Repeating arguments in Novgorod happened. In 1367, the Grand-Master and Lubeck forbid trading with Russians. As Lubeck had stopped trading, Livonian cities and the Order continued trading. It was made clear that Lubeck couldn’t protect the interests of Livonian cities.

The growing importance of Tallinn in trading with Novgorod reflects that in 1402, Tallinn made a contract with Novgorod to rent the Gothic trade yard. With the contract, Hansaetic office in Novgorod went to the hands of the cities of Old-Livonia.

The deadline was 10 years but the contract was decertified constantly. Tallinn paid the rent in 1557.

After Novgorod was united with the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1478, Tallinn had to communicate with a centralized state. The conflict of Order and Russia (1480-1481) brought the merchants in Tallinn great difficulties. In 1487 a Treaty was made between Tallinn, Tartu and Novgorod for 20 years.

In the contract, it was said that merchants will compensate all damages made to Russians. They also said that if the damage-dealer was a citizen of one the 3 Hansaetic cities then she or he would be killed. That gave Russians the insurance for safety. It was also mentioned that relations with Russia are a bridge that mustn’t be overwhelmed.

Of the trading in Tallinn, a picture can be given by the number of ships: ordinarily 10-50 ships arrived in a year. In 1435, 102 ships arrived, in 1426, 70 ships, in 1531, 69 ships and in 1545, 100 ships. All wars made the number of ships diminish. The turnover was in 1382: 252000 Lubeck marks, in 1383 it was 109000 Lubeck marks.

The most important article of import was salt. Salt gave employment to many men. The salt had to be put in bags and it had to be weighed. Then it was brought to the beach and then the bags were carried into the city.

100 tündrit of salt = 7 sälitist

1 sälitis = 2065 kg

As tünder and sälitis are unique units of amount for Tallinn, they are not to be translated.

Very notable is the larger amount of salt trade in comparison to other Livonian cities, of which Riga had the largest amount of trade in general. A good comparison of cities can be made from 18th March 1368 to 10th March 1369. Actually only the value can be calculated:






Value in Lubeck marks 






How many sälitis 







How many kilograms 


248 800 kg 

1 288 880 kg

747 930 kg

In the 15th century, there were 24,3 shiploads of salt per year. In the 1540’s the number grew over 70. On the 15th July in 1442, 57 ships came to Tallinn from Baie

Where the salts came from?

Most of the salt came from Flandria and France: Baie in the delta of hoire. Brouages in the delta of Garonne, France. Even the Portuguese traded with Tallinn.

The amounts of salt brought to Tallinn were quite different than the amounts of other Baltic Sea cities.

In the best years in the 16th century, about 10 000 sälitis were brought to Tallinn. In the 16th century, about 35000-40000 sälitis of salt came into Baltic Sea – 15-20% of it travelled to Tallinn. Of linen and cloth, frieze was the most imported. Of its different sorts, the Poperinghean was most loved. It made up 30% in 1494 and 40% in 1495 of all frieze. It was of good quality and relatively cheap that craftsmen, feudal lords and merchants. Novgorod was very fond of it as well.

From other sorts of frieze, taken to Tallinn and then to Novgorod, other popular sorts were of the other Flandrian states and cities, such as from the capital of the country of Hainaut that was Cambrais, the kamerykshe lakene and from Tournai the dorksche laken were popular

The most important article of export was grain, which was usually traded for salt. In the second half of 16th century, you could gain 1,5 – 2,5 sälitis of salt for one sälitis of grain. The price arose very quickly. Grain has been taken to many different lands, mostly to different parts of Flandria and Northern Germany (including Lubeck).


Exported grain


4712 sälitist


7682 sälitist


9452,5 säiltist


A Short History of the City Wall of Tallinn

The town wall’s eldest remains belong to the XIII century. Fully developed during 3 centuries, the town wall of Tallinn was one the greatest defence systems in northern Europe. The final length of the wall was 2,3 km. There were 35 defence towers in the front, 8 of them were gate edifices: 2 middle gates to keep in touch with the patricians’ locale in Toompea and 6 of them were outer gates in the exterior of the wall. Considering the fact that in addition to the complicated complexes there were about 10 frontal defence towers to protect those complexes, the number of the towers reached 45 and the length of the walls with the front gates and double walls reached 3 km.

Only a half of the mighty defence system has survived – 1,8 km of walls and 26 defence towers. The rest has been destroyed, neither by the time nor war, but by the greed of the people. But the interesting construction and rational solution of the remained buildings show us the high architectural culture and acme of perfection of the foregone builders.

The new town wall was based on advices by Jens Kanne, an ambassador from Denmark, because the building started during the Danish rule. But the project itself was based on the need for a new water filled moat, which had to protect the city in front of the new south and east walls. But the Danish power fell after the Jüriöö Rebellion and in 1346 the king sold the city to the Order and the building probably gained ground during that time and the 1,5 km long wall was finished by 1355.

The wall was built with the help of a certain module; the shape of the arc-niches was based on an equilateral triangle. The arc-niches were built mostly on economical ideas – they enabled to save money on the materials. The width of the wall was 2,3 m and the height 6,5 m.

Of the 14th century defence towers, 8 were made of stone and 3 of wood. There were also 2 stone towers, which belonged to an abbey, and a gate made of wood. With those edifices, by 1355 the number of the defence towers reached 14.

The walls obviously had some weapons, like catapults and crossbows. 3 catapults were given to the tower of the Viru Gate, which was said to be the most important gate in Tallinn at that time. To get the catapults up to the tower, there were thick, often covered with waterproof layer, floors. During truces the tower and the catapults were protected with a temporary “roof” that had to be destroyed quickly in case of danger so they could fire at the enemies. To use the crossbows they used the lower floors with specially built embrasures. The embrasures were vast from the inside and thin from the outsides; that guaranteed more protection and granted a great homing. The lower floors were also used for keeping the equipment and also for prisoners. Although the architecture had developed a lot, there were certain standards. The width of the towers was approx. 1,65-1,75 m, descending step by step when rising. The width of the wall was not so certain, it varied from 1,3 – 2,65 m depending on the type of the wall, whether it was with arc-niches etc.

The XV century was the time of great rearrangements for the defence edifice. The 5th phase of building the town wall had already begun at the end of the last century and by 1413 the wall had reached the level that satisfied the needs of that time. Most of the towers also had a name by that time.

The 4th phase had brought 5 new types of defence towers. The number of the towers was controlled by a complicated political system, but the variety of them was strictly based on the development of war-technique. For example, the rectangular-shaped towers weren’t functional anymore, instead were used half-moon-shaped towers (e.g. Munkadetagune Tower, which also gives us a great view of the first phases of building).

So in the mid-15th century, the first extensive defence zone had appeared and with that the 5th phase had almost finished. But the war-techniques kept developing and the defence buildings had to keep up with it. During the 6th phase the walls and the towers were made even stronger. The defence towers rose as high as 20-50 metres but due to the opulence of the towers and the length of the wall, the 6th phase lasted for half a century. Researchers have found out 13 towers that were built according to the new plan. The plan had to even up the architectural image. That’s why the top floors of the high town towers of Tallinn are built after a very similar pattern.