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Tallinn 800 – first recorded mention of the city

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By  •  11.06.2019

The year 2019 marks a milestone in Tallinn’s history: on June 15, the city celebrates its 800th anniversary, commemorating its first recorded mention in the Livonian Chronicle of Henry in 1219, where Henry of Latvia (Henricus de Lettis) describes the battle of Lindanise Castle (today’s Toompea hill) between the Danish King Valdemar II and the Estonian forces.  

As all good things come in pairs, the city’s first mention is not the only reason to celebrate: we share our big anniversary with the Danish state flag, the Dannebrog. According to a popular legend, the red-and-white cross fell from the sky as a sign of support from God during the battle in Tallinn and secured the Danes a hard victory. 

The city will celebrate the 800th anniversary of its first recorded mention with different exhibitions, outdoor events and themed festivals, many of which will be held in cooperation with Danish cultural institutions. 

When was Tallinn founded?

In 2019, we celebrate 800 years from the first definitive mention of Tallinn in 1219, but the settlement itself is believed to be much older as the area probably attracted attention as a prime location for a port. According to archaeological finds in Tallinn’s city centre, the first human settlements date back to as far as 5000 years. 
Sometime in the 10th or 11th centuries, Estonians built the Lindanise (or Kolyvan in Russian sources) stronghold on today’s Toompea hill, in the centre of the ancient Rävala county (hence, the German name for Tallinn: Reval). 

Henry of Latvia describes in his chronicle the arrival of the Danish fleet led by King Valdemar II to Lindanise Castle in the beginning of the 13th century. According to the chronicle, there was a battle at the location on June 15, 1219 where the Danes won a difficult victory. As mentioned before, the legend says that luck smiled upon the Danes after a red flag with a white cross fell from the sky – the Dannebrog – the modern-day state flag of Denmark. Today, you can visit the Danish King’s Garden (Taani kuninga aed), the supposed camping spot of Valdemar II and the birthplace of the Danish state flag. 

Following the battle, the Danes built a stone castle on the location of Toompea and thus gave the city its Estonian name, Tallinn, as it is generally thought to be derived from Taani-linn, meaning ‘a Danish town’. 

On May 15, 1248 the city, then known as Reval, gained Lübeck city rights that bound Tallinn to a common legal space with medieval German trading towns. Thanks to its strategic location between Russia and Scandinavia, the city became a major trade centre, especially from the end of the 13th century when Tallinn joined the Hanseatic League, a powerful commercial and defensive union of merchant guilds and towns in Northwestern and Central Europe. 

The Danish conquest of Lindanise was followed by a long period of alternating rule by Denmark, Germany and Sweden, followed by Imperial Russia in the 18th century. On February 24, 1918, Estonia declared independence, and Tallinn became the official name of the capital, replacing the German and Russian versions Reval and Revel. 

Read more about the history of Tallinn

Tallinn, Taani-linn – a Danish town

As said, it is generally believed that Tallinn gets its name from Taani-linn, meaning ‘Danish town’ in Estonian. Today, the town might not seem that Danish to you at first, but Valdemar II and his troops have left their lasting mark on the city and its habitants.   

After the battle of Lindanise in 1219, the Danes built a stone castle on Toompea. Ever since, this stronghold has been the seat of power in the country and all the rulers – the Danes, the Germans, the Swedes, the Russians, and finally the Estonians – have modified it according to their needs and tastes, making it a true mosaic of different architectural styles. 

The castle’s aptly named defence tower, Tall Hermann (Pikk Hermann), is a beloved national symbol: tradition dictates that whichever nation flies its flag over Tall Hermann rules Estonia. Today, the Castle of Toompea houses Riigikogu, the Parliament of Estonia, and the blue-black-and-white Estonian flag is hoisted to the top of the tower every morning at sunrise to the tune of our national anthem.

The Danish rulers were also the ones to start building the impressive defence system of walls and towers around Tallinn, which today is one of the defining features of our Old Town. Work on the wall started in 1265, but the current outline of the wall dates to the 14th century. Today, with 1.9 km of the original city wall and 20 defence towers still standing, Tallinn boasts one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval fortification systems. 

To learn more about Tallinn’s defence systems and experience walking on the town wall from one tower to another, visit the Kiek in de Kök Fortifications Museum. Have a drink in their café, located at the Maiden’s Tower (Neitsitorn), and enjoy the amazing view of the city and the Danish King’s Garden, the symbolic birthplace of the Danish state flag, the Dannebrog

If you look closely, you will find signs of the Danish red-and-white cross all around the city. One of the symbols of Tallinn, known as the lesser coat of arms, features a silver cross on a red background, which is a direct reference to the Dannebrog. The same symbol is also the coat of arms of Harju County where Tallinn is located. 

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