The founding dates of cities or settlements are usually the first mention in written sources. The closest and well-known example is the first mention of Vilnius in a letter written by the Lithuanian ruler Gediminas on 25 January 1323. It should be borne in mind that this specific year (1323) marks only a symbolic date for the foundation of the capital of Lithuania, as recent archaeological research shows that the town of Vilnius was founded a few decades earlier. Despite the latter, the general consensus and the real and symbolic significance of Gediminas and his letters form such a strong combination that it is impossible to question 1323 as the symbolic date of the foundation of Vilnius. In order to determine the symbolic date of the foundation of Trakai, we propose to take a Vilnius-like complex approach to a similar problem. An approach that encompasses several perspectives should harmoniously combine both written and archaeological data, as well as the more general emphasis on meaning-making, and should create adequate preconditions for the best possible solution and consensus. We would therefore like to put forward the following arguments on the matter of your concern:

  1. It has been known for a long time that Trakai was first mentioned at the end of the 14th century in the chronicle of Vygandas Marburgietis, describing the unsuccessful battle in 1337, which ended unsuccessfully for the Lithuanians, at the Bayernburg castle of the Teutonic Order in the Panemunė Region, in the course of which an unnamed Duke of Trakai was killed. If one is narrowly and solely attached to the first written mention, it is possible to consider this date as the foundation date of However, we would not suggest that this date should be used as a symbolic date for the foundation of Trakai, partly because the plot is not obviously directly related to Trakai and its potential to develop a meaningful narrative about the historical and cultural significance of Trakai is considered to be limited.
  2. On the other hand, we believe that it is necessary to attribute greater cognitive and, at the same time, symbolic significance to the well-known legend of the foundation of Vilnius from the Lithuanian annals. It is worth noting that the tradition of Lithuanian chronicles dates back to the very end of the 14th century, i.e. to the reign of Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. This was the usual three-generation lower horizon of living memory that has been characteristic of all times. Therefore, we have good reason to believe that, without transgressing the imperative of the search for historical truth, we can detect a certain grain of truth in the legend of the foundation of Vilnius. This insight also applies to The Bychowiec Chronicle describes how the Lithuanian ruler Gediminas moved his capital from Kernavė to Trakai and from Trakai to Vilnius:

"Once the Grand Duke Gediminas left his capital Kernavė to hunt five miles away, beyond the Neris, and found a beautiful mountain in a forest, surrounded by oak forests and plains; he liked it very much, and settled there, and founded a town, and gave it the name of Trakai, where the old Trakai was; and from Kernavė he moved his capital to Trakai."

Although the legend of the founding of Vilnius (and Trakai) and the passage just quoted cannot be treated as a report on real events, we must nevertheless stress that their symbolic eloquence fits well with both archaeological and historical data. For example, recent archaeological research shows that, at the beginning of the 14th century, the castle of Old Trakai was built in a landscape previously untouched by human activity. The Lithuanian annals describe the same prehistory of the foundation of Trakai. In the context of Lithuanian history, this is a very rare case where archaeology and semi-historical, semi-legendary knowledge fit beautifully together. Moreover, it should be stressed that the Lithuanian annals unanimously note that Gediminas' capital in Trakai was short-lived, as Vilnius was soon established. Taking into account that the symbolic date of the foundation of Vilnius is considered to be 1323, we believe that the most appropriate symbolic date for the foundation of Trakai could be 1322. Such a date would fit well with both historical and archaeological data. It would also provide a good starting point for making sense of Trakai's historical and cultural significance.

  1. The legend of the founding of Vilnius records the most important centres of the Old Lithuanian State - Kernavė, Trakai, The creation, relocation and final consolidation of the capitals in Vilnius can be seen as a crucial stage in the creation of the state, when the transition from the court of a travelling ruler to the custom of a more sedentary residence in the most important castles of the state and in the capital town of Vilnius itself was made. The juxtaposition of Trakai and Vilnius in this context would allow us to emphasise the importance of Trakai as a town of great importance for the state. After all, Kernavė-Trakai-Vilnius is the nucleus of the Old Lithuanian State.
  2. The task of making Trakai more meaningful is first and foremost a matter of the decision and commitment of the inhabitants of Trakai to their town. After discussing the various circumstances, we believe that it would be both historically, culturally and even politically appropriate and particularly relevant for Trakai to emphasise the role of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas the Great (1392-1430). He was the ruler who built the castle on the island of Trakai, established the Trakai parish church, settled Tatars and Karaites in Trakai, granted the town of Trakai self-government rights, and was a frequent resident of the town himself.* Therefore, we can safely say that "Trakai is the town of Vytautas". We can even propose that Trakai's birthday be celebrated on 8 September. This is both the day of Vytautas' planned coronation as King of Lithuania and the time of the famous feast day, when pilgrims from all over Lithuania and other countries flock to the miraculous image of Our Lady of Trakai. According to legend, the appearance of this saint in Trakai is associated with Vytautas the Great.**



Chartularium Lithuaniae res gestas magni ducis Gedeminne illustrans. Gedimino laiškai, par. S. C. Rowell. Vilnius 2003, Nr. 16, p. 46–48.

G. Vaitkevičius, Vilniaus įkūrimas, Vilnius 2010; O. Valionienė, Viduramžių Vilnius. Erdvės evoliucija (XIII a. vidurys – XVI a. pirmas ketvirtis), Vilnius 2019.

„Die Chronik Wigands von Marburg“, hg. von T. Hirsch, in: Scriptores Rerum Prussicarum, Leipzig 1863, Bd. 2, S. 493–494: „… Accidit, quod quidam frater Tilemannus de Sunpach magister sagittariorum telo igneo vexillum combussit et statim post paganorum regem de Tracken telo vulnerat in collum inter scapulas, et mortuus est, suscipiens partem cum dampnatis, et sic pagani post plurima dampna perpessa cum scandalo abierunt.“

Lietuvos Metraštis. Bychovco kronika, par. R. Jasas, Vilnius 1971, p. 71. Stories of the same informative value about the founding of Trakai and Vilnius are also reported in other Lithuanian annals. Полное собрание русских летописей, t. 35: Летописи белорусско-литовские, составитель и редaктор Николaй Улащик, Москва 1980, с. 96, 153, 180, 201, 222.

A. Kuncevičius, I. Merkytė, J. Poškienė, R. Prapiestienė, R. Vengalis, G. Vėlius, J. Volungevičius, „Senieji Trakai – gamtinės aplinkos transformacijos“, in: Archaeologia Lituana, 2018, 19, p. 126.

S. C. Rowell, „Trakai – Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės mikrokosmas“, online:


* It is to be regretted that the circumstances of the granting of the rights of the self-government of the city of Trakai (Magdeburg) are not more precisely known, it is only assumed that they should have been granted around 1409. A. Baliulis, S. Mikulionis, A. Miškinis, Trakų miestas ir pilys, Vilnius 1991, p. 39.

** More about recent research on the miraculous image of Our Lady of Trakai. Po Trakų Dievo Motinos Karūna, sud. M. Paknys (ser. Acta Academiae Artium Vilnensis, 90), Vilnius 2018.

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