True Lithuania

Historical Heartland of Samogitia: Kražiai, Varniai, Rietavas

In three small towns of central Samogitia several out-of-scale buildings divulge their past importance. These are Kražiai, Varniai and Rietavas, the political, religious, cultural and educational centers of western Lithuania in 15th-19th centuries.

Kražiai, the original capital of Samogitia (1416-1464). The 1762 Late Baroque church here became notable again in 1893 when a mass of people protested the Russian Imperial decision to close it down. This led to a Cossack massacre of the armless Lithuanian peasants (9 killed, 53 injured, 150 arrested) which triggered an outrage in the religious 19th century Christian world that in turn saved the church from demolition (but not closure). Only a bellfry remains from a much older wooden church (established in 1416). Kražiai’s third church was at the former Jesuit college. Today’s sleepy village hardly reminds an education center but it attracted many students from afar in 1614-1844. Recently restored former dormitory (bursa) is a witness of this era.

Church of Kražiai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1464 the center of Samogitian diocese was moved 28 kilometers west to Varniai. Two churches (one brick, one wooden) remind of that town former importance, as does the recently rebuilt 53 m tall tower of former priest seminary (1770), now home to the diocesan museum.

Baroque St. Peter and Paul church with 11 altairs (left) and the priest seminary tower (right) in Varniai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rietavas, 33 km further west, is centered around a large neo-Romanesque church built built in 1873. This was the golden age of the Oginskis family. Technology-loving dukes of Rietavas also constructed the Lithuania’s first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892), established a famous musical school in what were the last years when manors rather than cities were the source of progress and culture in Lithuania. The towered Oginskis Palace did not survive the trials of history, but other buildings of the manor did. Today Rietavas is also known for its bustling bazaar-like market which occupies a disused airfield every sunday morning, attracting buyers and sellers from all over Samogitia and beyond.

Kražiai-Varniai-Rietavas route may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery, both some 30 km east of Kražiai.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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  1. I am trying to locate a castle that was once in Kraziai, Samogitia. It existed in the sixteenth century, but I am unable to find out its name or what happened to it. Can you help?

    Thank you,

    • Kražiai castle was wooden. Wooden buildings generally have shorter lifespans. There are no surviving wooden castles in Lithuania as tehy were eitehr destroyed or replaced by more modern military installations.

      It is believed that Kražiai castle was destroyed in late 14th century as one document of 1395 already mentions the location as a “place where castle once stood”. At the time the Teutonic (Crusader) vs. Lithuanian wars were devastating the area (see the article on Grand Duchy of Lithuania). Kražiai castle stood on a hill that still remains near the village of Papiliai some 3 km southeast of Kražiai village. Approximate coordinates are 55°34′41.2″N 22°43′49.3″E.

      In the 16th century Kražiai was an important religious and educational center but it no longer had a castle. However some sources claim that local noble Mikalojus Radvila the Black sought to build a brick castle in late 16th century (which was either partly or fully completed). Samogitia was rather pacified back then however so this was not a defensive castle but rather followed a popular trend to shape residential palaces as castles. See the article on the Castles of Panemunė for surviving examples. That castle-palace was replaced by a Jesuit church which has also succumbed to time.Only a former dormitory now remains of that large Jesuit educational complex.

      More about Kražiai (not the castle though) can be found here.

      • Thank you for taking the time to reply. The residence I’m looking for is described as a ‘grand-ducal house’ in Book 51 of the Metrica, so maybe it wasn’t a castle or a palace as such. It was lived in by two English Protestant refugees c.1556, Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk and her husband, Richard Bertie. They sold it back to the Radzowills between 1559 and 1561, for 3676 Dutch thalers, the same amount they had bought it for. It’s a shame it no longer exists, but if anyone has further information for me (especially if they can give me a source), then I’d be very grateful.

        • I assume you are then talking about the second castle-palace I have mentioned, or, more correctly, the manor palace that most likely preceded it. “Radvila” and “Radziwill” are alternative spellings (Lithuanian and Polish respectively) for the same noble family name, see the article on “Poles of Lithuania” for info on these dual spellings. As for the sources, e.g. this magazine “Žemaičių žemė” (“Samogitian land”) of 2010 published a chronology of Kražiai which says

          “1559 Žygimantas Augustas sold Kražiai to Catherine Suffolk and Richard Bertie [NOTE: in the source Lithuanian spellings are used which are „Kotryna Sufolk“ and „Ričardas Bertas“]. After them (since 1568) Kražiai were ruled by Mikalojus Radvila, the voivod of Vilnius. Ever since that time he called himself „count of Kražiai“. M. Radvila built in the territory of Kražiai manor a castle-palace which was surrounded by a moat. […] 1621 – Jesuits started constructing their church on the foundations of Radvila palace (works completed on 1689)”.

          (as I said the castle was a palace in the form of castle actually and it is disputed whether it was ever fully completed as designed, but a residential building should have existed before that in manor as well, as it was common for the town owners to live in a local manor palace). The book “Vakarų Lietuvos miestai ir miesteliai” (“Cities and towns of Western Lithuania”) by A. Miškinis (a researcher of Lithuanian urban history) allegedly also describes these facts, but I don’t have it with me to check.

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