Pictured above Solitude: The Blue Palace in Skyrim.
A trip through the land of Skyrim is not complete with a visit to the five major castles of the land; castle Dragonsreach of Whiterun, the Understone Keep of Markarth, the Mistveil Keep in Riften, the Blue Palace of Solitude and finally, the legendary Palace of Kings in Windhelm. Each of these majestic structures are impressive in their own right, each known for their unique architectural and historic values. More than just massive stone fortresses, castles have long stood for many important things about the land of Skyrim; from the solidarity of the citizens to a decisive fort against a great threat, castles are more than just big houses, they also serve as the home to the spirit of the people.
Originally a small castle for the city of Whiterun, the royal palace took an unprecendented renovation when King Olaf One-Eye decided that it would serve as the holding ground for the dragon, Numinex. Standing high above the city of Whiterun, Dragonsreach is both impressive as it is intimidating –reminding all that the great walls are strong enough to contain a dragon.
Entering from the cloud district of Whiterun, visitors to the palace traverse a long and magnificent bridge to the castle's double doors. This main entry leads directly to the castle hall where the Jarl is present for most of the day. Large banners emblazoned with the gold horse head (the insignia of Whiterun) line the walls, creating a magnicificent athmosphere for the Great Hall.
Currently, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater sits upon the throne of castle. And while is he is steadfastly claiming to be neutral towards both the Empire and the Stormcloaks, he still considers himself to be a “true Nord”. While this may seem like a nod to the Stormcloaks, the city itself shows signs of Imperial influence –Whiterun is marked as red in tactical field maps and also, the taverns play songs of the empire.
Markarth: Understone Keep
Rich in both history and mystery, Understone Keep's true origins are yet to be uncovered. The Keep, much like the rest of the city of Markarth, was created on top of a ruined Dwemer city. While Understone Keep has proven worthy of serving as a castle for both comfort and protection, it is easy to note that it looks nothing like a castle at all. Indeed, no one has yet to find out the true purpose of the Dwemer structure which the keep was built upon (to this day, researchers are still discovering hidden rooms and passageways created by the dwemer). But regardless of the true origins, Understone Keep is here to stay.
The Dwemer influence in the structure is easily evidenced –the royal family has opted to repurpose the existing facilities instead of replacing them. As the city of Markarth deals mostly in stonecraft and mining, the Dwemer themed designs work quite well for the entirety of the city. Aside from using the ruins of the long-lost dwarfs, Understone also plays host to a museum dedicated to the Dwemer –and what little we know of them.
At the main hall of the castle, sitting upon the unfortunately named Mournful Throne, Jarl Igmund delivers both guidance and leadership to the people. The Jarl is a strong supporter of the Empire, and the city itself provides plenty of resources for the war effort. Aside from the usual Nords, Understone is also home to the Thalmor high elves.
Riften: Mistveil Keep
Sitting quietly above the busy city of Riften, Mistveil Keep casts a careful and watchful shadow over many citizens of the realm. Hard stone pieces serve as the foundation, the walls, and the very essence of the castle –like a rock standing amidst a storm of change, it embodies the stance of the ruling body in this time of strife. The Keep finds its beauty in its simple and straightforward design: the entrance hall provides space for banquet and the Jarl's throne. And within the castle itself, barracks for the guards, and a prison for the those who break the law.
Speaking of law, Riften is infamously known as the center of Thieves' Guild activity, and while this may seem to be a sign of doubt towards Jarl Laila Law-Giver's abilities, it does not reflect upon her personality. The Jarl leads with strength from her throne, and it makes one wonder how thieves could even be so bold as to oppose her. Indeed, as a firm supporter of the Stormcloaks, the Jarl herself had one of her own children stripped of any functional role for voicing out his support for the Empire.
Aside from the barracks and the prison, the Keep holds very little else aside from sleeping quarters for the rulers and the servants, a kitchen, and an armory (which originally served as a storage for food). One location of notice however, is the magic caster's room. Wylandriah, the castle mage, provides a steady supply of concoctions and various ingredients for magical recipes. Visitors would do well to visit her shop within the castle from time to time.
Solitude: The Blue Palace
Of all the many palaces and keeps in Skyrim, few hold the same splendor that the Blue Palace provides. Built outside the city of Solitude, the Blue Palace's platform appears to embody the physical gap that is said to exist between the rulers and people as seen from a distance. However, as citizens walk into the Avenues District (the main path leading to the only entrance to the palace), the transition is almost unnoticeable from within –a symbol of the true state of Solitude and the closeness of the rulers to the people they govern.
The Palace is less of a castle than it is a gigantic mansion. Housing two large wings, many rooms and an elaborate internal floor layout, the Blue Palace's rich history has certainly found a place worthy to be its home. Currently, the entirely of the west wing has been blocked out (this is known as the Pelagius Wing), for the Wing is said to be haunted by the late Pelagius, also known as the mad king.
From the entrance, one can head up the stairs and into the main throneroom where Jarl Elisif the Fair resides. The widow of the late King Torygg is both strong and stern, proving to all that she has what it takes to lead the Empire against the Stormcloak rebellion.
Windhelm: Palace of the Kings
This massive architectural landmark is considered to be the oldest Nordic structure in all of Tamriel and towers above many other constructions. According to records, it is here that Ysgramor established a foothold in the land. Now, the palace is home to Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak, the leader of the Eastmarch and head of the rebellion.
The dense snowy climate of Windhelm hides much of the glory that is the Palace of Kings. But a closer look at the castle will reveal ancient stonework and masonry that is highly durable and incredibly ornate. Massive etched plaques line the walls, each providing a narrative of the many historical aspects of the locations –should you ever find yourself as the visitor to the castle, these make for excellent reads. Stepping inside the massive doors of the palace, a visitor turns their back on the biting cold to the welcoming warmth of a massive hearth. The throne is clearly visible from the front, establishing the Palace's main purpose –to provide the people with a ruler.
Despite its great history, the Palace of Kings seems to remain mostly unchanged in terms of archietecture. The rooms are few and far in between and there are only spaces of function -non for luxury. The only things that are new are the massive banners of the Bear of Windhelm, the insignia of this northern realm.