From the moment after it was founded in 1201, Riga was the centre of Medieval Livonia: the administrative centre of the Archbishop of Riga was here, but the city was also home for merchants. The Order’s castle in Riga was the centrepiece of their stand against both the Archbishop and the citizens of Riga themselves: the numerous times in the 13th and 14th centuries when the Order found itself in civil strife with the other inhabitants could not have happened without the fortifications it had prepared for itself.
Today, that ignoble history has been left behind with the castle forming a central showpiece of the Latvian Republic—the residence of its President. As such, guards can be seen around the premises while they are also as well kept as one could hope.
From these points of view, the castle does not look imposing. However, Riga cannot be understood without referring to the Daugava. The river, one of the mightiest in Northern Europe, is a behemoth. And, it is from the river that one should look at the castle in Riga: it’s where its size and strength are most apparent.
Yet, that same might of the Daugava, when made so apparent, made me question how and why the Knights’ thought to build here. It is clear that nothing they could have done could have stemmed the river—and, indeed, scrolls note how in disputes between the Knights’ and the citizens, the citizens managed to dam and bridge the river sufficiently to disrupt the Order’s merchant affairs. The river, therefore, both makes and unmakes who owns this place.
The modern usage of the castle also detracts from its historic approachability: one cannot now only see the past in what is very much a structure appropriated for use in the modern day and age. Numerous reconstructions from the 13th century onwards give force to this. Yet, this is not bad—rather it is good to see how a structure can retain its value.
However, with that in mind it is still slightly sad to have seen that very few signposts mentioned the castle in any way. There were no noticeboards to show what the castle would have looked like, and no signs to detail how the importance of this place has changed. One of the most important things—perhaps—from understanding the defensive rationale of the castle would have been to put into context it versus the later Swedish circumvallations.
For the Order, Riga was one in a line of castles that followed the Daugava deep into the Livonian countryside. It wasn’t the strongest and it wasn’t the most important, but it was a lodestone on which the Order’s relations with other Livonians hung. Similarly, Riga’s importance in facilitating communications across the river cannot be underestimated given its on the shortest (and easiest) line from the Order’s strongholds in modern Cesis to Jelgava and Courland.