By Minjie Su
For anyone who visits Örebro, it is hard to miss its castle – an ancient-looking fortress made of weathered grey stones that stands on an islet in the middle of the city centre. The seventh largest city of modern-day Sweden, Örebro once an important portal to inner territory of the country. Several major roads were passing here; to control Örebro would mean to have control over the trade as well as to have a say over who can pass and who cannot.
It is only natural that a castle should be built on such a strategic spot. At some point during the 1300s, a stone house was constructed on the north-western part of the islet; a bridge went just in front of the islet, offering passage over the river Svartån (‘the Black River’, because of the colour of the water) and connecting the trading routes. No one knows for certain precisely about when it was built, but it must have been already completed by 1364, when Albrekt av Mecklenburg, who became King of Sweden in the same year, celebrated the capture of a fortress in Örebro.
Later, this structure was expanded into a 30-metre high defence tower made of granite and a ring wall of about 10 metres long. Although it sounds quite plain and simple, the castle was sturdily built and functioned well as a defence structure: machicolations were constructed, allowing boiling water or burning tar to be poured over enemies; the tower itself was only accessible from the inner yard by a ladder, which apparently would be raised should the castle gate be breached; a drawbridge kept any besieging troops at bay, with a palisade of wooden stakes standing around the castle. This 14th-century structure still stands today; you can tell that you are in the oldest part of the castle when you find walls much thicker than the rest of the building.
In the early 1400s, the castle was expanded yet again – this time three wings were built to the south, west, and north of the tower; each of these wings were 3-storey high. Within one of the wings there was a hall with pointed arch windows. The expansion and construction went well into the second half of the century, when the castle obtained a Gothic look – among other things – with the addition of great Gothic windows to the north and south.
It was not until the reigns of Gustav Vasa and his son that Örebro Castle stepped into spotlight. Örebro – both city and castle – was passed onto Gustav Vasa when he took the Swedish throne. Although the king never really lived in Örebro Castle, it did become part of his building projects and formed an important link to Gustav Vasa’s defence system. The Castle was then under the charge of Duke Karl, Gustav Vasa’s youngest son who later became Karl IX of Sweden. A portrait of Karl IX is still hung in the great hall of Örebro Castle, side by side with another portrait of Gustav Vasa. Both paintings show some interesting physical features of the kings: Gustav is shown with a pair of shapely but oddly disproportionate legs, while Karl’s hair was shaved like a cross. The story goes that Gustav, discontent with his own legs, chose a soldier with nice legs to model for this portrait. Karl, on the other hand, did have hairstyle like that, but it is not certain whether he had it to show his piety (so when God looks down from Heaven, He will see the cross), or it was just a failed attempt to cover his baldness.
The history of any castle will not be completed without its legends and ghosts. Örebro’s haunting starts with Karl, though the story of the ghost in question predates him by more than a century. Engelbrekt Engelbrektson, leader of the Engelbrekt Rebellion in 1434 against the Kalmar Union, used to hold and reside in Örebro Castle. Engelbrekt was assassinated in 1436 on his way to Stockholm. He was later buried in St Nicholas Church in Örebro and worshipped locally as a saintly protector. When Karl IX took over the castle, the duke became envious of the long-dead man. He dug him up, and buried Engelbrekt’s remains somewhere within the castle walls. Ever since, people began to sight the shadow of a small, sturdy man, wandering within Örebro Castle.
The other dark side of Örebro Castle is its dungeons. From the beginning of its history, the Castle also served as a prison. Each expansion sees the addition of some new dungeons, and Karl IX himself contributed two torture chambers. Those dungeons were totally devoid of windows; the prisoners were kept in darkness. Chained and pilloried, they lived on the dirty water dripping from the wall and leftover food from the castle’s tables. Throughout the castle’s entire history, no one down there ever saw the light again except one person: Lasse-Maja, or Lars Larsson Molin, a transvestite thief in the first half of the 19th century. No one knows how Lasse-Maja managed to escape Örebro. He ended up in another prison later, but only to be pardoned by the Crown Prince in 1839. As the most famous transvestite in Swedish history, Lasse-Maja inspired many literary works and films; his life has become a grand romance.
What else is romanticised is the castle itself. Towards the end of the 19th century, Örebro Castle was restored according to the ideals of Romanticism. The castle just had to become ‘older’ – in appearance, anyways. Various elements were added or re-emphasized to foreground the building’s medieval-ness and Renaissance-ness. The white plaster that was probably added under Gustav Vasa’s reign was knocked off, revealing the granite underneath. It is in this form that Örebro Castle stands today. A castle of the Middle Ages, but also a castle of all ages.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: Orebro Castle in Sweden – Photo by Paulius Malinovskis / Flickr