Before I came to Malbork with my sister and friends from Austria, I had already seen the castle several times from the windows of a train passing by the city of Malbork, either towards the Baltic Sea, or when I was returning from the coast to my hometown hidden in the mountains, in the south of Poland (see: Travelling from ‘Hel’ to the City of Saint Mary). And I always waited when, after a short stop at the Malbork railway station, the train started and after a few seconds the red walls and towers of a Gothic castle appeared, reflecting in the waters of Nougat River. Its shadows stretched with its deep and walled moats and a wooden bridge guarded by thick towers of the entrance gate. Now, at last, I was standing right in front of it, only to disappear into its medieval maw just a moment later.
From Zantir to Marienburg
The settlement in Malbork dates back to the Neolithic (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). It was only in the tenth century AD. that the region was more intensively settled (Ibid.). In the mid-twelfth century, some regions on the Nougat River were regained by Pomeranian dukes (Ibid.). Thanks to them, the wooden and earth stronghold of Zantir was created on the right bank of the Nougat (18 kilometres to the south of Malbork), which Sambor, one of the brothers of the Duke of Pomerania, offered to the Teutonic Order in 1250 (Ibid.).
However, in 1281, a Teutonic commander abandoned it in favour of a nearby castle being just constructed of brick, which possibly happened on behalf of the later GrandTeutonic Master, Konrad von Feuchtwangen (1291-1296) (Bieszk 2010:105; Żylińska 1986:178). The castle, together with the surrounding town, was consequently named Marienburg, meaning the City of Saint Mary, the Patron Saint of the Order (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today the city is called Malbork and its original name, Zantir, was long ago forgotten (Żylińska 1986:178). The village was granted city rights in 1286, and surrounded in the second half of the fourteenth century by walls with towers and gates around the castle, forming one large fortified complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104).
The initial complex of Malbork was a rectangular building with a chapel and an internal courtyard, surrounded by walls, with corner towers, secured with moats and artificial canals, with a drawbridge leading to the defensive gate (Żylińska 1986:178). The castle was built on the model of fortresses in the Holy Land, but Saint Jean D’Acre fell in 1291, where a century ago, in 1198, the Fratres Domus Hospitalis Sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum in Jerusalem was founded as a branch of the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (Ibid.:178). Therefore over time, Malbork became the central, though not the only, seat of the Grand Teutonic Master (Ibid.:178).
Fortifications above the Nougat River
In order to build the castle, woods and other building materials had been collected. The first stage of construction began in 1280 (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The Teutonic Knights began to build on the top of a moraine hill above the Nougat River, preparing the site, building facilities, digging a moat and bringing water from Dąbrówka Lake, six kilometres south, through a specially dug canal (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). The canal’s waters were directed to the town and castle moats, connected to the River of Nougat, which alone could not provide a constant water level due to its location (Bieszk 2010:105; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). At the same time, the waters of the canal, flowing through the moat, moved the mills and carried away waste into the river (Bieszk 2010:105). Finally, along the moats, the whole contemporary complex was surrounded by the perimeter wall (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). Today, the moats are dry, so one can take a closer look at how powerful and high walls protected the lives of the inhabitants (Ibid.).
Over the next twenty years, the perimeter wall, the northern wing and, partially, the west wing had been finally completed (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017). A defensive tower called Gdanisko was also erected (Ibid.). It was the observation tower, which also acted as the final defence point (Ibid.).
Enemy’s growing walls and towers over the lands of Poland
Initially, Malbork was a commander’s castle, that is to say, it was of lesser importance. However, its status was going to rise due to a political situation in Europe, or rather, the imperial threat the Teutonic Order imposed in western Europe (PWN 1997-2020; Pro100 z MoSTU 2017).
When Malbork became the headquarters of the Teutonic Order, a huge number of Knights followed there their Grand Master, and that also required a reconstruction or rather a further enlargement of the complex (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104, Żylińska 1986:178). The original castle, which constituted the High Castle, turned out to be insufficient for the growing needs of the Knights and the Grand Master himself; because it was not representative enough, the castle began to grow with more and more magnificent buildings (Żylińska 1986:178). First, the Middle Castle with a large refectory was built, then the Grand Master’s Palace and finally the Low Castle (Ibid.:178). Within the fortress, there were stables and granaries, mills and wells, kitchens and pantries, an infirmary and a pharmacy, an arsenal and a smithy, all that could withstand even a heavy siege for up to two years (Ibid.:178).
Eventually, the castle of Malbork became the main house of the Teutonic Order, the seat of the Grand Master, of the General Chapter, and the administrative and management centre of the monastic state, with rising influence in Europe (Pro100 z MoSTU 2017; Bieszk 2010:104; Chabińska-Ilchanka et al. 2015:174). Seventeen grand masters were in office in Malbork for the period of 148 years (Bieszk 2010:104). The last of them, Ludwik von Erlichshausen, was forced to leave the castle in 1457, in favour of the Polish king, Casimir IV Jagiellonian (1427 – 1492) (Ibid.:104).
Wrong decision of the Duke of Masovia
The Teutonic Knights started their military and religious career quite modestly (Żylińska 1986:178). They were brought to Poland in 1226, by the Polish Duke, Konrad Mazowiecki, to help him in a fight against pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, ravaging his lands, Masovia (Ibid.:178). Until now, contemporary Polish historians have reapproach this disgraceful decision of the Duke of Masovia, who was surely unaware of its long-term consequences.
In the answer of the Duke’s invitation, the Teutonic brothers in the number of seven, including their Grand Master, Herman von Salza, came to Poland from Transylvania, from where they were driven away by the Hungarian king, Andrew the Second (Żylińska 1986:178). Konrad Mazowiecki, seemingly unaffected by this fact, settled his guests in the castle of Dobrzyń, and then offered it to them together with the city of Nieszawa, the villages of Murzynowo and Orłów, and the adjacent areas (Ibid.:178-179).
Wherever the Teutonic Knights settled in Poland, they established there their commanders and built huge red castles (Żylińska 1986:179). They were supposed to be a fortified defence wall against the invasions of barbarian neighbours, but in fact they became the outposts of a foreign nation inside the feudally fragmented Regnum Poloniae (Ibid.:179). Similarly, the chain of castles of Cardiff-Montgomery-Caerphilly-Chester were built in Wales, in the twelfth century, by Norman kings on the throne of England, which was intended to conquer that country and incorporate it into the English Crown, which actually happened (Ibid.:179).
Hot potato in medieval Europe
As a matter of fact, towards the end of the thirteenth century, the atmosphere of European rulers’ hostility towards the Order had been significantly growing (PWN 1997-2020). It was mostly caused by their conquest of Christian lands instead of those occupied by pagans (Ibid.). As there were concerns about open military actions against the Teutonic Knights, in 1309 it was decided to move the seat of the Grand Master of the Order from Venice to Malbork, closer to the lands still ruled by pagans (Ibid.). By these means, the problem in Europe was dropped like a hot potato, and made decision was actually to a significant disadvantage of Poland.
A Polish author, Jadwiga Żylińska (1989:179) writes that the Duke’s wrong decision to bring the Teutonic Knights to Poland resulted from his ignorance of important political events in the contemporary world; Kondrad Mazowiecki was just a feudal ruler who permanently resided on the Prussian borderland and was still involved in local wars with other dukes belonging, like himself, to the Polish dynasty of the Piast. Consequently, he did not know who the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Herman von Salza, really was (Ibid.:179). And he was, above all, one of the most trusted people in the entourage of the controversial Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the Second, and the best of his diplomats (Ibid.:179). Finally, it was Herman von Salza who crowned the previously excommunicated by the Pope Emperor as the King of Jerusalem at the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem (Ibid.:179).
Most famous of all medieval Orders, the Templar Knights openly showed their hostility towards the Frederick the Second and distanced themselves from the Teutonic Knights and their politics (Żylińska 1986:179). For their paths diverged in opposite directions; whereas the Templars aimed to build a new worldwide Christian community and ensure its safe growth, the Teutonic Knights exclusively thought of establishing their own state at the expense of another country’s territory and the Holy Roman Emperor seemed to fully support them in their ambitions (Ibid.:179). Accordingly, in 1226, Frederick the Second issued a Golden Bull in Rimini (modern day Italy), in which he granted the Teutonic Knights the property of the land conquered in Prussia, the land that did not belong to anybody but to pagan Prussians … (Ibid.:179).
Prussia territory should be defined as the Baltic areas between the rivers of Vistula and Neman (Gruszka 2018). It is estimated that around 170,000 people lived in Prussia in the thirteenth century (Ibid.). At that time, a vast majority of the area was covered with forests (Ibid.).
The main activities of the tribes were farming, breeding and, of course, plundering (Ibid.). Although various peoples who lived there were usually referred to as ‘Prussians’, they were composed of diverse tribal groups, such as Pomezanians, Pogesanians, Warmians, Scales, Yotvingians, Samogitians and finally Lithuanians (Ibid.). At some point, however, they began to consolidate and cooperate with each other, especially in the face of growing threats of Christian nations (Ibid.). As a result, they also became more and more dangerous to their neighbours (Ibid.). It is worth adding that pagan tribes posed a real threat to Poland, as they did not avoid trying to invade the lands of Christian rulers but any attempts of conquest of their lands turned out to be a real challenge (Ibid.). War against Prussia was not easy and lasted for half a century (Żylińska 1986:180). For example, in 1261, the Christian army, composed of Polish knights and crusaders from various parts of Europe, was defeated by the Lithuanians and Prussians in Natangia (Ibid.:180).
The Prussians, like the Vikings in the past, dealt not only with attacks and plunder, but also with trade (Żylińska 1986:180). There were also regular trade relations between Poland and Prussia; salt, iron and handicrafts were exported from Poland, for which the Prussians paid with amber and leather (Ibid.:180). However, while the Vikings had already been rightful members of Christian Europe for several centuries, Lithuanians and Prussians were still pagan, which was an impassable barrier between them and their Christian neighbours (Ibid.:181). After Jadwiga Żylińska (1986:181) adopting Christianity meant not only abandoning the faith of their ancestors, but also an access to the Christian civilization of Europe, which was as much a threat to them as a fascinating foreign culture. The first who felt attracted to it were Prussian nobles who, by being baptized and allied with the Teutonic Knights, changed into the Prussian aristocracy and at the same time, they strongly Germanised (Ibid.:181).
With all the distrust aroused by the Teutonic Knights, their red castles, wealth, organization, knightly gear of shiny armours, cloaks and caparisons embroidered with emblems, covering a rider and his horse (see: barding), and their waving banners with almost magical power affected the imagination of contemporaries, and not only of the barbarian tribes (Żylińska 1986:182). According to Żylińska (1986:182) a strong desire to destroy this foreign splendour had to harmonize in the souls of Prussians with their enchantment with such a cultural grandeur or even their aspiration to follow the knights’ example, which could only happen at the cost of losing the Prussians’ own identity. And so it happened; as the Prussia’s tribal substance did not turn into a nation in due time, its inhabitants could not withstand pressures of higher than their own organization and national consciousness (Ibid.:183). Consequently, the Prussians as a nation disappeared from the map and memory of Europe (Ibid.:184). Their language was also forgotten (Ibid.:184). The only its trace has been preserved in the prayer Pater Noster in the original language of Prussia (Ibid.:184).
Christianisation and Polonization of the Baltic tribes
The population of Mazovia in Poland also infiltrated Prussia and the other way round; the Prussians settled in Poland, some as prisoners, an example of which was a Prussian girl, who was brought up by Duchess Hedwig of Silesia, known in Polish as Saint Jadwiga Śląska (1174 – 1243), and eventually married to her steward (Żylińska 1986:181). Others fled from oppressions of the Teutonic Knights and became Polonized (Ibid.:181). By these means, the Polish nobility of the Prussian coat of arms undoubtedly descended from Prussian nobles (Ibid.:181).
In turn, the Lithuanians were baptized from the hands of the Kingdom of Poland, literally at the very last minute to protect themselves from a total destruction by the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:182). “In 1385, the Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Poland’s offer to become its king [through a marriage with the young Polish king, Hedwig d’Anjou (Jadwiga Andegaweńska). Consequently,] Jogaila embarked on gradual Christianization of Lithuania and established a personal union between Poland and Lithuania” (“Lithuania” 2021). It is worth adding that it was the Grand Duke Jogaila, who as a Christian king of Poland, Władysław II Jagiełło, finally defeated the Teutonic Order. The coat of arms of Lithuania [Lietuvos herbas Vytis] has been established as Pogonia or Pahoni, which expresses a fascination or rather a situation of transition from one formation to another; namely, it depicts a nomad horseback but already in the armour of a Western Christian knight (“Lithuania” 2021; Żylińska 1986:182). Not to mention the fact that all the great Lithuanian families were eventually Polonized (Żylińska 1986:182).
Unlike Prussians, Poles had already developed a well-established national awareness by the thirteenth century and knew that they had to destroy the Teutonic state, which was spreading on their lands, or they would perish themselves (Żylińska 1986:183). Such a destruction of the Teutonic Order eventually started with the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, won by the allied armies of Poland and Lithuania (Ibid.:183-184).
Under the Teutonic sword
Yet in the thirteenth century, when Konrad of Mazovia, together with the Teutonic Knights, had won the victory over Prussia, he additionally offered the Teutonic Knights the lands of Chełmno and Lubawa, located between Osa, Drwęca and Vistula Rivers (Żylińska 1986:180). Consequently, relations between the Duke of Mazovia and the Teutonic Knights were extremely good, and in 1231 they started building together a stronghold in Toruń (Ibid.:180). Soon, the Teutonic Knights got rid of the Poles from it and two years later issued location privileges according to Magdeburg Law for two cities, Toruń and Chełmno (Ibid.:180). The former turned out to be one of the most beautiful Teutonic cities, now in Poland (Ibid.:183). The wealth of the city attracted artists, craftsmen and architects (Ibid.:183). More and more magnificent sacred and secular buildings were built there, among which there were the town hall, the house of the Brotherhood of Saint George, the merchant’s house, bourgeois houses and Gothic churches (Ibid.:183).
On the whole, the Teutonic Knights acted so quickly and efficiently, that Konrad did not have enough time to realize when their commanders were being established in such cities as Nieszawa, Toruń, Chełmno, Radzyń, Elbląg, Dzierzgoń and Bałda (Żylińska 1986:180). Simultaneously, the Teutonic Knights called on Christian knights from all over Europe to fight the pagans and also attracted settlers from Germany (Ibid.:180). As a result, the settlement of the Teutonic Knights on the border between Poland and Prussia introduced not only a new ethnic element, but also a military organization aimed at conquering Prussia, which eventually took place in 1283 (Ibid.:182).
In the fifteenth century, Jan Długosz (1415 – 1480), a Polish chronicler, judges the act of bringing the Teutonic Knights to Poland by the Prince of Mazovia in the following words (Żylińska 1986:179-180):
“[Konrad of Mazovia] gave [the Teutonic Order the lands] in fact, but not legally, because the Duke Konrad could not make this donation to the disadvantage of the Polish kingdom. And although this grant seemed beneficial at the time, later there was a huge shedding of Christian blood because the Teutonic Knights had sought to seize the remaining lands of the Kingdom of Poland, and the Poles defended their seats. And among Polish kings and princes, there is no other who has brought on the Kingdom of Poland a greater defeat and a greater misfortune than the mentioned Konrad by calling the Teutonic Knights.”Jan Długosz in: Żylińska 1986:179-180.
From the times of glory to the fall
Since 1226, the Teutonic Knights had strengthened themselves on every piece of land given or conquered to them (Żylińska 1986:182). Each provincial commander erected a defensive red brick castle and a Gothic church dedicated to the Saint Mary (Ibid.:182). Additionally, European knights with godly intent to fight the pagans kept coming to Teutonic castles (Ibid.:182). The Teutonic Knights themselves, however, did not rush to convert pagans to Christianity, leaving it to the Franciscans and Dominicans (Ibid.:182). Instead, they preferred to fight, build burgs and develop their trade (Ibid.:182). Therefore, they founded their commanders on the trade route, and in the shadow of the castle a town was established, which soon gained an European status (Ibid.:182). Through the Teutonic ports at the Baltic Sea, goods were transported to Flanders, England, Poland, Lithuania and Ruthenia (Ibid.:182). The Order also had its commercial agents in Poland (Ibid.:183). Representatives of the Order took care of the rents due to them from the lands settled by the Polish dukes and additionally provided detailed information on their actions (Ibid.:183).
The Teutonic Knights ruled perfectly in their country, but it was done through a visible expropriation and an oppression of other peoples and nations (Żylińska 1986:183). Out of the Teutonic Order, a German state of Prussia originated in 1525, with the Prussian Homage to the Polish Crown made in Cracow, when Albert Hohenzollern “resigned his position as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and received the title ‘Duke of Prussia’ from King Zygmunt […] the Old of Poland” (“Prussian Homage” 2020). The new “duchy cantered on the region of Prussia on the southeast coast of the Baltic Sea” (“Prussia” 2021) and became the beginning of the Kingdom of Prussia, which eventually participated in the successive Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century (Ibid.).
The Teutonic Order, unlike the Templar Knights, was never officially dissolved by the popes (“Zakon krzyżacki” 2021). After the Prussian Homage and the secularization of Livonia (Latvia and Estonia), religious houses of the Teutonic Order mostly remained in the German Reich and the seat of the Grand Masters was moved to Mergentheim Castle in Württemberg (Ibid.).
The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary had gone a long way from the moment when seven brother-knights with Herman von Salza arrived in Mazovia, in 1226, until 1410, with the Battle of Grunwald, where the Grand Teutonic Master, Urlich von Jungingen and his knights were finally defeated, losing all their banners (Ibid.:183-184).
Silent but haunted witnesses of old times
Gothic cathedrals and castles built of red brick were left behind the glorious times of the Teutonic Knights (Żylińska 1986:184). Some of them, such as the castle in Toruń, were destroyed by citizens of the town during the uprising of the inhabitants of Prussia against the Teutonic Order (Ibid.:184).
But Malbork survived as a testimony of violence and of unsurpassed perfection, whose enormous Gothic silhouette still reminds of the times of terror (Żylińska 1986:184).
Since the time of Casimir IV Jagiellon and the Thirteen Years’ War, the castle had remained in the hands of the Polish Crown (Bąk 2017:55). In 1626, the stronghold was conquered by the Swedish army, which was returned to the Crown in 1635 (Ibid.:55). But the following years were not glorious for the castle at all: fires, the Swedish Deluge, destruction and continuous looting caused the Malbork Castle to start to decline (Ibid.:55). Any undertaken reconstruction attempts did not restore the stronghold to its former grandeur (Ibid.:55). After the First Partition of Poland (1772), the medieval castle fell into the hands of the German state of Prussia, when, after suffering a lot of destruction, it experienced the first renovation works in the nineteenth century (Ibid.:55). Yet, the most serious damage to the castle took place especially during the Second World War (Ibid.:55). Afterwards, many years of conservation work passed away before the building was restored to its former glory, and the castle itself became a Gothic gem on the UNESCO World Heritage List (Ibid.:55).
Malbork is undoubtedly a masterpiece of medieval architecture and the greatest fortification of northern Europe (Żylińska 1986:184). For many, it is also a place haunted by wandering ghosts of its previous inhabitants and infamous past events (Ibid.:184). Apparently, it is not just a matter of human imagination (Ibid.:184). Once, a British television presented a theory according to which events are stored in inanimate matter, just as images are recorded on a tape (Ibid.:184). The more bloody, violent, and significant the event was, the more likely it was to linger where it happened (Ibid.:184). And many of such events took place in the castle of Malbork.
Featured image: The fortifications of the Malbork Castle seen from the Nougat. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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