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The territory of Kežmarok was settled as early as 10000 years ago on Jerusalem and Michal’s hills. This is witnessed by the archaeological findings from the Stone Age, later the Bronze und Iron Ages and the periods of the Roman Empire and the migration of people. In the 6th century the Slavs came to the territory of Spiš. In the 13th century the territory of the future city was encroached upon by the German colonization wave.

Many localities names found in written documents from second half of the 13th century evidence presence of Slavs: Gala, Bystrica, Lubica, Lomnica, Bela, Verbev, Ruskin, Vysoká etc.

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Kežmarok was formed from four settlements, the oldest being the Slovak settlement at the Church of St. Michael above today's railway station. Their inhabitants were fishermen and watchmen of the road next to river Poprad.

Kežmarok is first time mentioned as a town in 1269, when Hungarian King Belo IV. Granted it city rights and privileges. The town was situated near important business routes from Orient to Northern Europe and this supported its fast development. In  1380 it became a free royal city with several political and economic privileges (the right of two annual fairs, the right of the sword, the right to use coat of arms, etc.). These privileges up to that day were confirmed also by king Zigmund in 1399 and in 1411 he added the right of free fishing, in 1412 he gave freedom to the inhabitants and buyers from paying duty. In 1417 freedom to use the forests.  In  1433 the city was conquered by the Taborites.” In 1441, in the period of the struggles for the Hungarian throne, witnessed the arrival of Ján Jiskra. The city was freed from the hands of Jiskra’s people in 1462. Probably in the year 1463 the sovereign Matthias granted the census tax of Kežmarok to the Hungarian noblemen Imrich and Štefan Zápoľský, who built a castle in the town. This is also the year the castle is first mentioned in the written documents. By the arrival of the castle lords Kežmarok got under the rule of the landlords that lasted for nearly 250 years.

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Štefans son Ján took advantage of the situation in the country following the Battle at Mohacs in 1526, in which the king died, and caused his own person to be crowned. Nearly at the same time Ferdinand Habsburg became the sovereign. Both rivals met in fights afflicting also the city of Kežmarok.

In 1527 Ján Zápoľský donated the castle and also, although it was against the law, the city of Kežmarok to the “župan” of “Železná župa-Iron Zupa (district),”(župan  historical term denoting the chief administrator of župa” which was a territorial and administrative unit of the feudal Hungarian monarchy), František Battyány. However, after the betrayal of the latter Zápoľský took the estates away from Battyány and gave them to the Polish diplomat Hieronymus Lasky. After death of Hieronymus, Kežmarok fell to his son Albert. Lasky family suffered from everlasting financial stringency. In 1571 Albert Lasky pledged both the castle and the city of Kežmarok to the captain of Upper Hungary Ján Rueber. In 1577 the latter ceded the pledged right to Stanislav Thurzo from Betľanovce. On paying the debts back the estates were given back to Rueber. However, not for a long time in the very year Rueber borrowed 42 000 “zlatý (historical term denoting a golden coin used in that period) from Trnava merchant Šebastián Thokoly and for this value he pledged to Thokoly not only Kežmarok Castle and the city but the estates in other 13 villages as well.

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Since neither Lasky paid the debt back to Rueber nor did Rueber to Thoköly, in 1583 Šebastián Thoköly moved into Kežmarok Castle. During one hundred years the castle was inhabited by four generations of the Thokoly family: Šebastián, Štefan I, Štefan II and Imrich.

In the period of the Thokölys, who wanted to change the city into a common serf community, Kežmarok suffered from the deepest political and economic oppression. Controversies between the city and the castle culminated in between 1647-1651. The burghers were assaulted by the castle soldiers who persecuted and even murdered them and robbed not only the houses but the craftsmen’s workshops as well. When the city promised to the sovereign an enormous sum of 200,000 pieces of Gold, the sovereign was willing to declare Kežmarok a free royal city, although the city had never lost its privileges. The agreement was reached in 1651. Kežmarok paid Thoköly as well and forever broke contacts with the castle lords.

The contention was put an end to by death of Štefan Thoköly II, who participated in the anti imperial conspiracy and the emperor confiscated all his property. For a short time the castle was in the hands of Štefan’s brother Žigmund, the former owner of Spišský Štiavnik.

The last of the family, Irmrich was the leader of the anti imperial uprising of Hungarian nobility between 1678‑1684. After his failure he secluded himself and lived in Turkey where he also died in 1705. His mortal remains were moved to Kežmarok in 1906 and in 1909 they were mowed to the new mausoleum.

Although the sovereign promised that after the confiscation the castle will fall to Kežmarok, in 1687 he sold it to Ferdinand Rueber. The new contention was solved by Ruebers death, the town bought the castle from his heirs in 1702, but it became its ultimate proprietor as late as in 1720. The city located barracks, grain storage rooms, various workshops, hospital, etc. at the castle. Several fires in the 18th-20th centuries considerably changed the looks of the castle.

Kežmarok Castle belongs to the type of the city castles that were built inside the cities as their fortification strongholds. Also the original Gothic building of Kežmarok Castle, which originated due to the Zápoľský family, looked in this way. In order to attach the castle building to the city fortification, the Zápoľský’s builders utilized part of the fortification wall and one of its towers.

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The first mention of the castle castellan dates back to the year 1463. The Lasky family made no alterations to the castle. Rueber modified it only after the fire in 1575. Thokoly family rebuilt the castle changing it into luxurious Renaissance structure and they constructed a Baroque chapel.

The ground plan of the castle is that of an irregular ellipse. In addition its walls it had also a forward outer wall. The castle could be entered by entrance tower, which is connected, to all the other towers and the ceiling wings by means of galleries.

Besides the entrance tower the castle had the oblong tower the former treasure‑house, the semicircular watch tower, the dungeon, and the so-called eastern watch tower once having belonged to the city fortification. From the dwelling wings only the western wing and the north eastern one have been preserved. The fires in the 18th century destroyed the southern, northern and eastern wings. The latest part of the castle is the Baroque chapel that was constructed by rebuilding of a part of the north eastern wing and the northern wing of the semicircular tower in the years 1657-1658.

In the courtyard of the castle one can see the foundations of the Church of St Elizabeth from the Saxon settlement, which were discovered in the archaeological research in the years 1964-1967. In the elevated position are also the foundations of the eastern and southern dwelling wings. In the place where the fascists put to death 20 partisans and civilians in September 1944 is the statue bearing the name “Vďaka" (Gratitude) sculpted by Meritorious Artist Ľudovít Korkoš. An extension of the castle from the northern side is the Stables. In the northern side, in the immediate vicinity of the castle is a roundel of the town entrance gateway called the Lower Gateway. The castle is the property of the Museum in Kežmarok. The efforts to establish a museum in Kežmarok date back to the second half of the 19th century, the plans were realized, however, as late as during the 1st Czechoslovak Republic when the Museum situated in the entrance castle tower was opened in the 1931. In 1935 it was enlarged by the oblong tower. During the World War II some items of the museum collections were stolen. The museum was reopened in 1947.

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In spite of the growing number of collections, the number of the exhibitions had remained unchanged besides the museum the castle housed several firms and store houses. The museum buildings themselves were in a poor condition the reconstruction in 1951-1953 damaged and destroyed plenty of precious wall frescoes and paintings. In 1959 the project for reconstruction of the museum and the castle was given approval, however the ultimate reconstruction works were taking place as late as in 1962-1985. All the places in the castle were given at the museum's disposal.

At present the castle spaces of the museum house the following exhibitions:

1. Exhibition of Archaeology,it presents a selection of the archaeological findings from Kežmarok and its close vicinity, and is focused especially on the castle.
2. Exhibition of Feudalism it has three parts: the city privileges, the guilds and crafts, and the town hall parlour.
3. Exhibition of Weapons.
4. Kežmarok Gun Club it includes relics once belonging to the oldest Kežmarok Gun Clubs dating back to 1510.
5. Kežmarok and the High Tatras;
6. History of Kežmarok Fire Brigade;
7. Club of Spiš Doctors and Pharmacists is focusing on work of a native of Kežmarok and a pioneer of roentgen logy in the Hungarian Empire Vojtech Alexander, MD.

Besides administrating the castle the Museum in Kežmarok is in charge of six other objects, which are on its property.

The Stables, that are an extension of the castle, are utilized as offices and common rooms. In one part of the building of the Lyceum  old Kežmarok School is the Exhibition of Literary Traditions of Kežmarok Lyceum. The wooden articular church is now opened to public. Two burgher houses serve as depositories; one of them is intended to house the Exhibition of Housing Culture. The last object is the tower of the former city fortification housing a depository.

Activities of the Museum in Kežmarok, which is a museum with a district range, are focused exclusively on the field of social sciences.

Reprinted from: Kežmarský Hrad, Nora Baráthová, Neografia, Martin 1989, ISBN 80-217-0085-8


Published in the Slovak Heritage Live newsletter Volume 10, No.2, Summer 2002
Copyright © Vladimir Linder 2002-3 
3804 Yale Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5C 1P6
The above article and photographs may not be copied, reproduced, republished, or redistributed by any means including electronic, without the express written permission of
Vladimir Linder. All rights reserved.