Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Military History and Warfare: Castles: Läckö castle

This is the first in a new series of articles which I will be writing over the coming months, dealing exclusively with the subject of castles.

The first of these articles begins with a look at Läckö Castle in south-west Sweden. Läckö Castle was originally built in 1298 by the of Bishop of Skara, Brynolf Algotsson. Strategically located in the centre of his diocese, the position was ideal for command and control of the area. Läckö was situated on a peninsula in Lake Vänern (a major source of commerce and trade in the area in one of Europe’s largest freshwater lakes). The position gave the occupants a complete overview of the lake for many miles The original medieval foundations of the castle were fortified. Defences were especially important given that the region was surrounded by powerful threatening kingdoms such as Denmark.

After the reformation in 1527, the Swedish Crown took possession of the property. It then passed through the hands of various nobles until 1615, when Field Marshal Jacob Pontusson de la Gardie was granted Läckö as a reward for services to the crown. Although the military element of the castle continued with a permanent guard detachment stationed, the Field Marshal also embarked on major improvements to the existing structure. Interestingly thou, none of these improvements were military in nature. They included adding a portal to the main courtyard and constructing a third story above the keep.

Note the privy sticking out of the wall!

However, these improvement works were minimal in comparison to those made by the next occupant. Magnus Gabriel de la Garde was only thirty when he took over the castle. He had already had a highly successful career as a diplomat. Sweden’s success in the Thirty Years War had propelled the country from the fringes of European politics to ‘Great Power’ status. Sweden was now dealing with countries such as France and the Habsburg dominions as equals. This new era, known as the ‘Age of Greatness’ was an age of prosperity and growth for Sweden. Nobles such as Magnus Gabriel were now regularly travelling into the heart of Europe and bringing back new ideas and wealth to the country. In 1654, he constructed new rooms for the staff, a kitchen wing, a chapel and a fourth floor for the keep. The castle you see in these pictures are the final product of Magnus Gabriel’s building work.

In four centuries, the castle had changed from being a semi-militarised settlement, into a grand stately home. Looking at the castle now, it is clear that the military functions of the original structure have long receded into the background of the architecture. Two seventeenth century cannons and a handful of arrow slits in the castle turrets hint that Läckö could once also have had military purpose.

Nevertheless, the structure itself is an excellent example of how the purpose of buildings can gradually change as security and prosperity start to replace disorder and fear. In the age of gunpowder, a castle served its owner better as a stately residence, rather than as fortified military base. The wealth generated by Magnus Gabriel whilst travelling abroad, gave him the money necessary to decorate the interior with the latest baroque furniture and paintings.

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