John's Yard, a place of Riga beginnings

John's Yard, a place of Riga beginnings
Kaspars Garda, Rīga 2014
28-09-2013 A+ A-
John's Yard (Jāņa sēta) is a well-known quarter between Kalēju, Jāņa and Skārņu Streets that is located in the oldest city part formed in the 13th century. It should be considered the place of Riga beginnings. In any case, Bishop Albert of Riga is known as the founder of Riga when he built his first wooden castle and founded a settlement.

At first, the settlement of Bishop Albert

Rolands Rolands (formerly known as Rolands Zagorskis), and actor and long-time manager of „Hamlets” theatre club, also confirms that, indeed, the beginning of Riga was in John's Yard. He works at his club for seventeen years and have explored its surroundings quite seriously, so Rolands agreed to guide our tour this time.



„At first, this place was called Bishop’s, no John’s Yard. The nearby St. John’s Church might be built in 1236 to 1249. Before that, there was a place of Bishop Albert,” Rolands tells also reminding the historical events when the first settlement of German knights was built by Rīdziņa entry in Daugava (currently the city canal and dissecting room is located in there). „As Albert desired for a bigger settlement, yet another place was searched.

Many must have read the legend of Kaupo who gave a completely empty territory for Albert in there, on the shore of Rīdziņa between Skārņu, Kalēju and Jāņa Streets. Therefore, a castle and a church-style chape was built. Indeed, he moved to Bishop’s Mountain ten years later where „Gūtenbergs” hotel operates these days. Back then, Livonian Brothers of The Sword started to create their settlement in the old place.”

There is information published on that „the first Riga Bishop Castle was given to Dominican abbey. Currently some ruins remain from the 14th century cross-passage fragment and abbey gate towards Skārņu Street. After the Reformation, the city started to use abbey buildings.” The place was called John’s Yard circa 1902.



"I would say, in here, there is the beginnings of Riga, but every tour guide who accompanies tourist groups might have their own opinion,” says Rolands who also adds that an event could be held at „Hamlets” club in order to tell about John’s Gate and Old Riga history. „ As soon as people enjoyed the excursion and tasted black balsam or homemade Riga beer, they could watch some film about Old Riga, for instance, „Mana mīļā Rīga” („My dear Riga”, 2006) directed by Laima Žurgina. A student of mine made Riga map, so it could be given to tourists in order to visit several Old Riga spots. Those who find all of them, get the prize,” tells Rolands while thinking of future plans how to explore Old Riga.



Prison, brewery, club

The house that is built in later years where „Hamlets” operates these days never lost its social functionality. „A large fire went on in 1677, it’s most likely related to Swedish War,” continues Rolands while showing the wall of nearby St. John’s Church where cannon bullets still apear, he laughs that it is not a fiction (indeed, St.John’s Church was damaged during the fire, as well- edit.). After two years, the building was renovated, and then the city set up a prison and a shelter. „I can’t remember the name of that-time home owner, but he rented his house to the town council as businessmen do nowadays because he did not think of setting up living roms. There used to be two doors, people could walk through and get to the church balcony in order to attend the service. Men used the first doors, the second was for women.

It’s interesting that the balcony has no ramp down. It means that people had to go back through the doors after the service.”

The doors appear on the wall of „Hamlets”, the local residents could use them, but those were enclosed for some reason.



 „Of course, nobody really knows what happened at this house. One historical story says that six nuns lived there, but the second building was for a shelter. The fact that this balcony has no ramp down means that the locals were probably prisoners,” assumes Rolands also saying that he could tell more and more about this house.

In 1930s, a group of architects and archaeologists did research in John’s Yard but the school building of St.John’s Church was taken down in 1938, then a fortification wall was discovered behind. „But it was already enclosed in the way it was not possible to reach the wall.”

Considering that-time research results, a brewery and a bakery was set up in the building where „Hamlets” operates now. I think the joyful spirit lives here from these days! In 1980s, a publishing house „Elpa” („The Breath”) managed by Mairita Solina was located in here.

 „You can find lots of interesting details in archives of John’s Yard if you wish, it’s worth reading a book about it, it was released circa 2004,” sums up our guide.

It suits for such an old house like this to have its own ghost. Employees of „Hamlets” experienced it from time to time during those seventeen years. „It does no harm to us, just walks through the rooms, goes through things. We don’t know what it is, but it’s there. Usually, on 1 am,” tells Rolands who adds that at least five clubs operated on the first floor, all of them end up in a year or two, then it gets unpleasant. „I sat there for a while, but I had the feeling to get out of the place as soon as possible. I looked at the open walls and thought that a torturing room could be set in there. As there used to be a prison, it’s highly possible.”

Monks built in the wall and other legends

Despite the fact that it’s raining all day, we walk to St.John’s Church where history as interesting as for the whole quarter, besides, we get a promise to get in the church basement. (To find out more about history of St.John’s Church, click here).



During the walk, Rolands tells one of tourist’s most beloved legends about the monks who got themselves enclosed in the wall of St. John’s Church. „Two Dominican monks desired to become the saints, so they were built in the wall while being alive. When both were in there, Riga residents gave them food through a special hole. After their deaths, the pope did not call them the saints. So, their remains are left where this cross-form hole is seen on the outer wall of the church,” tells Rolands and shows the window that is seen the best from the other side of the street.


Employee of the church secretariat guides us to the basement where the wall from the 12th century still appears, this is the background of nowaday’s church building.” There is no specific story about this place, and the lady adds that all the stories about monks and the ghost, it’s just a tool to attract tourist’s attention. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that Riga might be first settled on that very place where we usually go to concerts at St.John’s Church or just walk through John’s Gate.


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