Town fortification

A document by Sigismund of Luxemburg – the Hungarian King (1387-1437) issued in 1405 mentioned a fortification of Žilina for the first time. The document ordered the town inhabitants to build a fortification that had been a common feature of other free royal towns. The King also specified the inhabitants from the neighbouring settlements, who should come to help building the fortification and to help deliver the necessary material. Unfortunately, no information about building such fortification has been preserved.

The fortification was mentioned for the first time in 1474, when Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian King, exempted Žilina inhabitants from paying the military tax for three years, because they spent much finance on building the fortification. The document specifies neither the type of fortification nor its length. The written sources mention briefly that it was necessary to build the fortification and that it was built, but we do not know anything about its quality and length.

Žilina did not have stone town walls as many other important towns in Slovakia. In many towns the walls have been preserved until the present. They can be seen in particular in Trnava, Bardejov, Levoča, Kežmarok, Kremnica. The last attempts to identify the newly discovered brick structure as a part of the Mirage commercial centre were not successful, since the period and location of such a structure does not make it possible to make a final decision about whether it was a part of the town fortification or a part of Žilina castle, which has been sought for a long time.

Ditches that used to circumvent the oldest part of Žilina were found in several places around the medieval town centre. The first ditch was found during the digging foundations of the present Všeobecná úverová banka Bank in 1974. A former water ditch filled with a grey-green layer of mud was found under then Kováčska Street. Apart from two fragments of ceramics no important datable discoveries were made. A fragment from the bottom of a vessel probably from the 15th century and a fragment of clay stove tile with the motif of a woman figure from the 16th – 17th century would correspond with a written notice about building the fortification in the 15th century as mentioned in the document by king Matthias Corvinus.

Another hint to help clarify the position of town fortification was discovered during the construction of two buildings in Priekopa Street. The presence of the water ditch was proved by a mud layer. Thus it was proved that Žilina was fortified by a water ditch in the 15th century and perhaps already in the 14th century. The most important proof of this assumption was found during research in Hodžova Street in 1995 when the researchers managed to explore a ditch over 5 metres wide and at least 3 meters deep. In its fourth layer, at a depth of 2 metres approximately, a medieval pot decorated by one wider and two narrower circumferential grooves from the 14th century was found. During construction of underground garages between Hurbanova Street and Horný val it was proved that this deep ditch continued further. Three successive ditches were discovered there. The deepest one that was nearest to the town centre, also dated back to the 14th century.

NThe map from 1747 shows the historical centre of Žilina surrounded by ramparts and water ditches. The names of the streets - Horný val (Upper Rampart) and Dolný val (Lower Rampart) and Priekopa (Ditch) imply the form of fortification of Žilina. No stone town walls ever stood there, only soil ramparts and water ditches. During the uprising of Francis II Rakoczi, when the town was occupied by the emperor’s army in 1708, the Žilina general Ebergényi ordered building palisades around the town and ditches around the outskirts. Again, a fortification was mentioned in 1712, when the above-mentioned general permitted removing the rotten palisades and restoring the ditches. However, there was no word about any stone fortification. The last water ditch was discovered during the digging of the basement of the Crystal Palace opposite the VÚB bank building. Unfortunately, the research was not completed.

From the oldest times until the beginning of the 18th century the town fortification consisted only of water ditches and soil ramparts, and possibly from wooden palisades. There is nothing to wonder about since for example Komárno, a big fortress on the River Danube, had similar fortifications at the end of the 16th century. This is how a royal Evangelic priest described the fortification on his journey to Istanbul: “The town was surrounded by a robust palisade made of logs as high as a man and a half, carefully reinforced with soil”. Such a type of fort and town fortification was common in that period in Hungary.
Since Žilina did not manage to build any stone town walls as ordered by the king Sigismund already in 1405, it did not become a free royal town and remained a yeoman town lead by a lineal mayor until the beginning of the 16th century. Then the town managed to redeem itself from such position by purchasing the whole property of the lineal mayor. Other towns, Bardejov and Prievidza, did not manage to do so and needed help from the Hungarian King Louis I and his daughter, Queen Mary.

Some assumptions of a stronger town fortification arose after the discovery of a brick structure with a round ground plan during archaeological research above the underground garages between Horný val and Hurbanova Street. The ground plan and the dimensions of the structure dated back to the middle of the 15th century or to the beginning of the 16th century were similar to those of the tower of Budatínsky Castle. This period was defined based on the findings discovered in a covered ditch situated in the middle of the structure. Since the structure was situated inside the town walls, behind the town ditch, the tower may have belonged to a fortification. It could not belong to the Žilina castle mentioned several times in documents from the 14th -15th century. According to one document of 1397, Žilina Castle was situated nearby the town, not in the town or in the town fortification. It can be supposed that the tower was built by the Žilina inhabitants after the town had been attacked by Hussite armies several times in the period from 1430 to 1434. Afraid not to experience such a situation again, the town started building the tower after the Hussite armies left. The armies were wandering around until the 60’s of the 15th century and had been ravaging the neighbourhood castles and towns. They, for example, built a fortification – a Bastion – next to the Strečno Castle, from which the castle could be attacked directly; and they occupied an older fortification at Hradisko pri Gbeľanoch. A coin of Matthias Corvinus from 1464, metal components of crossbow and a metal bullet from “hákovnica” (a flintlock firearm of a very large calibre equipped with a barrel hook) were found there. All the discoveries proved the presence of garrisons of Ján Jiskra that arrived to protect the rights of Ladislaus V, a son of the Queen Elisabeth. It can be assumed that this expensive structure was the reason for the exemption from the military tax for three years by king Matthias Corvinus in 1474. This is the most probable explanation since the date of building the stone tower and existence of the tower falls within that period. The tower may have been demolished by a big fire that destroyed the town in the first third of the 16th century, in 1521. The majority of buildings at the central square were wooden in the previous period, however, since then only bricked houses started to be built in Žilina. The history of Žilina from the very beginning until the present is full of surprises and there is still space to modify the information either by revaluation of the written documents or by discovering new objects.

A discovery of a stone structure near the parish church induced many associations about its age and mainly about its purpose in a medieval town. Was it a part of the town fortification or does it belong to the remains of the town castle mentioned in several written sources in the period 1350-1457? It is perhaps impossible to make a definite decision, since the supporters of either possibility have found enough relevant arguments supporting their claims. Further research will probably bring similar findings since, after many years of dispute; it was proven that the parish church was not a part of Žilina castle as stated by Alexander Lombardini, the first historian from Žilina, in his book in 1874: Brief history of the free town Žilina. Not only his statement was not proven, but vice versa, it was proven that an older, single-nave church used to stand on the place of the present parish church. The saddle roof of the old church was discovered during a research of the eastern wall of the church tower. It had been probably a part of the older building and the new three-nave basilica only incorporated it in its ground plan. The church tower had never been a part of Žilina castle but it belonged to an older sacral building built at the beginning of the second half of the 13th century, i.e. after 1250.

At the very beginning the town fortification consisted of mere water ditches as shown on a map from 1747 while it was only during the second half of the 15th century that the circular stone structure was probably built to protect the inhabitants from the Hussite armies that usually arrived from Budatín, i.e. from Kysuce and Silesia regions along the old commercial road: This road was also used by German tradesmen and craftsmen from Tešín, who participated to great extent in forming the town and in its very early town rights granted by the Hungarian kings.

The first known privilege was granted by Charles Robert in 1321, another one – the annual markets – by his son Louis I in 1357, and the 1381 privilege for the Žilina Slovaks about equal representation of Slovak and German inhabitants in the town council and, last but not least, a privilege by Queen Mary of 1384 about the possibility to use Magdeburg law of the town of Krupina.
Therefore we can say that Žilina had undergone its biggest development in the 14th century under the royal family of Anjou, and it is probable that the first fortification was built in that period. It is very probable that the town fortification had always been rather simple, consisting only of water ditches, soil ramparts and perhaps wooden palisades. The reinforcement by a stone circular tower in the northern part of the area was probably only a short episode that did not last long. Therefore, at the beginning of the 18th century, the town returned to well tried means of fortification – ditches and ramparts, accompanied by palisades – as ordered by general Ebergenyi in 1708 and 1712

Source: Milan Novák, Peter Štanský

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