Vrboska – where the church is really a fortress!

St Mary of Mercy in Vrboska

St Mary of Mercy in Vrboska

At the heart of Vrboska is one of the more unusual churches that you’ll ever see – the church fortress of St Mary of Mercy has high walls, battlements and an impressive ravelin defending the front door. Originally financed by the local people, it was extended and fortified in 1575 to be a refuge in times of attack by the Ottoman Turks and other marauding pirates.

To us, it’s the clock at the end of our street, helpfully chiming the hours by day and night – see The Bells of St Marys. Now, as I mentioned in that post, we have a couple of other examples of fortified churches on the island, so let’s take a look at them…

St Marys church in Jelsa

St Marys church in Jelsa

Another St Mary’s is the dominating church in Jelsa, with its elegant white bell-tower standing proudly above the cluster of red roofs. This church gets a mention in the Hvar Statute of 1331, at a time when it was much smaller. Don’t let the 19th century façade and bell-tower fool you – take a peek round the back and you’ll see high defensive walls with battlements. This church was also a place of refuge for the local townsfolk in the 16th century when the Turks came calling.

Stari Grad Dominican Monastery

Stari Grad Dominican Monastery

And over in Stari Grad, the Dominican Monastery of St Peter the Martyr was founded in 1482. Following a devastating attack by Turkish corsair Uluj Ali in 1571, much of the town had to be rebuilt, and the monastery added a defensive tower. Local people here also had the option of sheltering in Tvrdalj, the fortified summer residence of Petar Hektorovic. Pity it wasn’t quite finished ready for the attack! These days the monastery has a lovely museum, displaying some of the rich heritage of this most ancient of Hvar’s towns.

Tower with battlements

Tower with battlements

So what is the difference between a fortified church and a church-fortress? And how widespread are they?

Summarizing from Wikipedia, that source of all knowledge:

A fortified church is a church designed to play a defensive role in time of conflict, incorporating military features such as thick walls, battlements, and embrasures. A fortress church is specific type of fortified church that is also used by the local population as a retreat and defensive position. A fortress church usually has a complex of buildings set within a surrounding defensive wall.

St Mary of Mercy in Vrboska

Vrboska’s refuge

In the case of St Mary’s in Vrboska, there is only the church itself, no other related buildings or surrounding wall, but it was definitely designed as a refuge for the locals in time of attack. Also, there is a 16th century look-out tower – known as Kaštilac – on top of the hill to the north, which gets a great view over the sea approaches. So, not a defensive tower, but an important watch-tower.

Kaštilac look-out tower

Kaštilac look-out tower

Unlike continental warfare, there would be no reason to fend off an enemy for weeks on end, as a prolonged siege was unlikely. Pirate ships would sail in for a quick raid, taking what they could in the way of slaves and other loot, and burning the rest. So a church fortress here may not have needed additional enclosing walls, as it might have on mainland Europe. Incidently, pirate boats from Makarska still raid amongst the islands, but the worst part of the attack these days is that truly awful booming music!

Komiža's fortified church on a stamp

Komiža’s fortified church on a stamp

Moving further away, there’s another famous church fortress in Komiža, on the neighbouring island of Vis. St Nicholas, also known as Muster, has appeared on a commemorative series of stamps issued last year by Hrvatska Pošta. This is apparently the oldest example of its kind in Croatia, with two towers dating from the 13th century.

From the view on the stamp, it looks very pretty, but when seen from the sea, you get a much better impression of what invaders would have faced, and how well defended this monastery really is!

You get a better view of the fortifications from the sea side

You get a better view of the fortifications from the sea side

Another example from the Adriatic – on the island of Šipan, near Dubrovnik, the Church of the Holy Spirit (Sveti Duh) looks very slab-sided. Not even any windows in that back wall!

Šipan church of the Holy Spirit

Šipan church of the Holy Spirit

As it turns out, fortified churches are pretty common across Europe, the surviving ones mostly dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, a time of war for so many parts of the continent. There are some fine examples to be seen in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Rumania and Transylvania. Many of those in eastern and southern Europe are a legacy of Ottoman invasions. Here are a few (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Translyvania, as it turns out, has several villages with fortified churches, seven of which have been designated as UNESCO protected historical sites. This is actually pretty impressive, a real fortress church!

Transylvania - Darjiu

Transylvania – Darjiu

These Transylvanian villages with their fortified churches provide a vivid picture of the cultural landscape of southern Transylvania. The seven villages inscribed, founded by the Transylvanian Saxons, are characterized by a specific land-use system, settlement pattern and organization of the family farmstead that have been preserved since the late Middle Ages. They are dominated by their fortified churches, which illustrate building styles from the 13th to the 16th century.

Even in England, there are a few examples of fortified churches near the Welsh and Scottish borders.

England - Pennard, Somerset

England – Pennard, Somerset

In Ireland, too, you can find churches with battlements – this one has particularly stylish merlons for a very interesting roof-line!

Ireland - St Munna

Ireland – St Munna

So, basically, it was pretty common practice in Europe during wartime to fortify the largest building in the village to be your place of refuge. Very sensible. How you went about that, and what fortifications were appropriate, depended very much on local circumstances. Vrboska’s church fortress has a lovely simplicity about it, and definitely adds a touch of drama to what is these days a peaceful little fishing harbour. And, of course, it’s comforting to know we have a place to hide when the pirates attack!