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The world’s largest castle comes from Poland

The Malbork castle is the mightiest fortress of medieval Europe. It is the largest brick castle in the world measured by land area. The immense castle was begun in the 13th century and built by the Teutonic Knights in stages. During the next century, when Malbork became the capital of the Order’s state, the fortress was expanded considerably by the addition of the Great Refectory and the Grand Master’s Palace.

UNESCO designated the “Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork” and the Malbork Castle Museum as World Heritage Site in December 1997. It is one of two World Heritage Sites in the region with origins in the Teutonic Order. The other is the “Medieval Town of Toruń”, founded in 1231 as the site of the castle Thorn.

Fine example of a medieval brick castle

The castle was built by the Teutonic Order after the conquest of Old Prussia. Its main purpose was to strengthen their own control of the area following the Order’s 1274 suppression of the Great Prussian Uprising of the Baltic tribes. No contemporary documents relating to its construction survived from early Poland, so instead the castle’s phases have been worked out through the study of architecture and the Order’s administrative records and later histories. The work lasted until around 1300, under the auspices of Commander Heinrich von Wilnowe.

This 13th-century fortified monastery belonging to the Teutonic Order was substantially enlarged and embellished after 1309, when the seat of the Grand Master moved here from Venice. A particularly fine example of a medieval brick castle fell into decay, but it was meticulously restored in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Under the pretext of converting old Prussians to Christianity

Teutonic knights’ heritage is mixed, both negative and positive. In the eyes of Poles Teutonic knights were seen negatively. The Polish people believed they were cruel fighters dressed in white coats with black crosses and to many of them they were just the symbols of war and destruction. The Teutonic knights basically eradicated old Prussians, the Baltic people, under the pretext of converting them to Christianity. Nevertheless, the name “Prussia” was not forgotten since it was accepted as a name of the 19th century Prussian empire.

The strict Teutonic rule did not allow Teutonic travelers to spend the night outside of the castle

Teutonic knights brought not only the disaster but also the technological progress. They built the network of 120 castles during 200 years of their reign. The castles are situated one from the other not further than 30 km away which was one day of the horse ride, since the strict Teutonic rule did not allow Teutonic travelers to spend the night outside of the castle. The tight network of castles also simplified the communication between the knights in different castles. The knights could send light signals between the castles in the case of danger. Building so many castles is quite an achievement of these medieval times, more than one new castle during 2 years. It is also the reflection of the order power and engineering art.

Many of the conservation techniques now accepted as standard were evolved in the Castle of Teutonic Order in Malbork

The Malbork Castle is the most complete and elaborate example of the Gothic brick castle complex in the characteristic and unique style of the Teutonic Order, which evolved independently from the contemporary castles of western Europe and the Near East. The spectacular fortress represents the phenomenon of the monastic state in Prussia, founded in the 13th century and developed in the 14th century by the German communities of military monks who carried out crusades against the pagan Prussians on the south Baltic coast. The fortified monastery on the River Nogat represents the drama of Christianity in the late Middle Ages, stretched between extremes of sanctity and violence.

The castle was expanded several times to house the growing number of Knights. Soon, it became the largest fortified Gothic building in Europe, on a nearly 21-hectare (52-acre) site. The castle has several subdivisions and numerous layers of defensive walls. It consists of three separate castles: the High, Middle and Lower Castles, separated by multiple dry moats and towers. The castle once housed approximately 3,000 “brothers in arms”.

The outermost castle walls enclose 21 ha (52 acres), four times the enclosed area of Windsor Castle

The Castle is an architectural work of unique character. Many of the methods used by its builders in handling technical and artistic problems greatly influenced not only subsequent castles of the Teutonic Order but also other Gothic buildings in a wide region of north-eastern Europe. The castle also provides perfect evidence of the evolution of modern philosophy and practice in the field of restoration and conservation. It is a historic monument to conservation itself, both in its social aspect and as a scientific and artistic discipline.

History of more than 800 years

The Teutonic Order or in its full name the Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem looks back on a long and eventful history of more than 800 years. Formally established as hospital brotherhood near the seaport Acre in the Holy Land in 1190, during the third crusade. In the prologue of the Order’s Book it reads: “Real knighthood does not only know the time-bound form of swordplay, which has passed; the actual composure of chivalrous men is rather expressed in their commitment for the Lord’s kingdom, for protecting the defenceless, for helping the maltreated, those beset, the condemned and those in need.” It is the pronounced goal of the Knights, Brothers and Sisters of the German Order to jointly implement this composure, abiding by the Order’s motto “Helping and Healing”.

About 1128 a wealthy German, having participated in the siege and capture of Jerusalem, settled there, and soon began to show pity for his unfortunate countrymen among the pilgrims who came, receiving some of them into his own house to be cared for. When the work became too demanding for him there, he built a hospital, in which he devoted himself to nursing sick pilgrims, to whose support he likewise gave all his wealth. Still the task outgrew the means at his command, and in order to increase his charity he began to solicit alms. While he took care of the men, his wife performed a like service for poor women pilgrims. Soon they were joined by many of their wealthier countrymen who had come to fight for the Holy Land. Presently they “banded themselves together, after the pattern of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and united the care of the sick and poor with the profession of arms in their defence, under the title of Hospitalers of the Blessed Virgin.” These Teutonic Hospitalers continued their work, in hospital and field, until the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, and the conqueror, in recognition of their benevolent services, consented that some of them should remain there and continue their work. Out of these lowly beginnings grew one of the most powerful and widespread of the military religious orders. It was during the siege of Acre, 1189-1191, that the Teutonic Order received its final and complete organization as one of the great military religious orders of Europe.

A monopoly on the trade of amber

The favourable position of the castle on the river Nogat allowed easy access by barges and trading ships arriving from the Vistula and the Baltic Sea. During their governance, the Teutonic Knights collected river tolls from passing ships, as did other castles along the rivers. They controlled a monopoly on the trade of amber. When the city became a member of the Hanseatic League, many Hanseatic meetings were held there.

Teutonic support for one of the sides in the internal power struggle

In 1230, the Teutonic Knights, a crusading military order, moved to the Kulmerland (today within the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship) and, upon the request of Konrad I, king of the Masovian Slavs, launched the Prussian Crusade against the pagan Prussian clans. With support from the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, the Teutons conquered and converted the Prussians by the 1280s and shifted their attention to the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For about a hundred years the Knights fought the Lithuanian Crusade raiding the Lithuanian lands, particularly Samogitia (Żmudź) as it separated the Knights in Prussia from their branch in Livonia (once the land of the Finnic Livonians inhabiting the principal ancient Livonian County Metsepole, nowadays the Republic of Estonia). The border regions became uninhabited wilderness, but the Knights gained very little territory. The Lithuanians first gave up Samogitia during the Lithuanian Civil War (1381–84) in the Treaty of Dubysa (consisted of three legal acts formulated on 31 October 1382 between Jogaila, Grand Duke of Lithuania, with his brother Skirgaila and Konrad von Wallenrode, Marshal of the Teutonic Order). The territory was used as a bargaining chip to ensure Teutonic support for one of the sides in the internal power struggle.

In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania (Władysław II Jagiełło) proposed to marry reigning Queen Jadwiga of Poland in the Union of Krewo (the union was a decisive moment in the histories of Poland and Lithuania; it marked a beginning of the four centuries of shared history between two nations). Jogaila converted to Christianity and was crowned as the King of Poland thus creating a personal union between the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The official Lithuanian conversion to Christianity removed the religious rationale for the Order’s activities in the area. However the Knights responded by publicly contesting the sincerity of Jogaila’s conversion, bringing the charge to a papal court. The territorial disputes continued over Samogitia, which was in Teutonic hands since the Peace of Raciąż of 1404. Poland also had territorial claims against the Knights in Dobrzyń Land and Danzig (Gdańsk), but the two states were largely at peace since the Treaty of Kalisz (1343). The conflict was also motivated by trade considerations: the Knights controlled lower reaches of three largest rivers (Neman/Niemen, Vistula/Wisła and Daugava/Dźwina) in Poland and Lithuania.

Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War

The Order lost its main purpose in Europe with the Christianisation of Lithuania. The Order got involved in campaigns against its Christian neighbours, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Novgorod Republic (after assimilating the Livonian Order). The Teutonic Knights had a strong economic base, hired mercenaries from throughout Europe to augment their feudal levies, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea.

In May 1409 an uprising in Teutonic-held Samogitia began. Lithuania supported it and the knights threatened to invade. Poland announced its support for the Lithuanian cause and threatened to invade Prussia in return. As Prussian troops evacuated Samogitia, Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on 6 August 1409. The Knights hoped to defeat Poland and Lithuania separately, and began by invading Greater Poland and Kuyavia, catching the Poles by surprise. The Knights burned the castle at Dobrin (Dobrzyń nad Wisłą), captured Bobrowniki after a 14-day siege, conquered Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) and sacked several towns. The Poles organized counterattacks and recaptured Bydgoszcz. The Samogitians attacked Memel (Klaipėda). However, neither side was ready for a full-scale war.

Wenceslaus, King of the Romans, agreed to mediate the dispute. A truce was signed on 8 October 1409 and was set to expire on 24 June 1410. Both sides used this time to prepare for war, gathering troops and engaging in diplomatic maneuvering. Both sides sent letters and envoys accusing each other of various wrongdoings and threats to Christendom. Wenceslaus, who received a gift of 60,000 florins from the knights, declared that Samogitia rightfully belonged to the knights and only Dobrzyń Land should be returned to Poland. The knights also paid 300,000 ducats to Sigismund of Hungary, who had ambitions regarding the Principality of Moldavia, for mutual military assistance. Sigismund attempted to break the Polish–Lithuanian alliance by offering Vytautas the Great (Witold Kiejstutowicz, Wielki Książę Litewski) a king’s crown. Vytautas’s acceptance would have violated the terms of the Ostrów Agreement and created Polish-Lithuanian discord. At the same time, Vytautas managed to obtain a truce from the Livonian Order.

In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order and broke its military power

By December 1409 Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas (Witold) had agreed on a common strategy: Their armies would unite into a single massive force and march together towards Marienburg (Malbork), capital of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights, who took a defensive position, did not expect a joint attack and were preparing for a dual invasion by the Poles along the Vistula River towards Danzig (Gdańsk) and the Lithuanians along the Neman River towards Ragnit (Neman/Nieman). To counter this perceived threat, Ulrich von Jungingen concentrated his forces in Schwetz (Świecie), a central location from where troops could respond to an invasion from any direction rather quickly. Sizable garrisons were left in the eastern castles of Ragnit, Rhein (Ryn – a town in Poland) near Lötzen (Giżycko – a town in northeastern Poland), and Memel (Klaipėda – a city in Lithuania on the Baltic Sea coast). To keep their plans secret and mislead the knights, Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas organised several raids into border territories, thus forcing the knights to keep their troops in place.

In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the Order and broke its military power at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg). In 1515, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I made a marriage alliance with Sigismund I (Zygmunt I Stary) of Poland-Lithuania. Thereafter the Empire did not support the Order against Poland. In 1525, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg resigned and converted to Lutheranism, becoming Duke of Prussia. Estonia and Livonia soon followed, and also the Order’s holdings in Protestant areas of Germany.

The major objects of European fascination with medieval history

Over a span of 200 years, since the 18th Century, the Malbork Castle has remained one of the major objects of European fascination with medieval history and its material remains. It also became a sign of the tendency to treat history and its monuments as instruments in the service of political ideologies.

From the 19th century onwards Malbork Castle has been the subject of restoration that contributed in an exceptional way to the development of research and conservation theory and practice. At the same time many forgotten medieval art and craft techniques were rediscovered. Extensive conservation works were carried out in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following the severe damage that it incurred in the final stage of World War II, the castle was restored once again, using the detailed documentation prepared by earlier conservators.

Unforgettable memories

Today you can admire the castle in different light. If you ever get to Malbork, take a night tour. The exceptional journey through Malbork Castle, where the magic of illuminated medieval walls will surely leave unforgettable memories. Accompanied by a guide in a Teutonic Knight outfit you will visit: courtyards, terraces, cloisters as well as the chosen castle interiors. It`s really worth visiting.

By Agata Szostkowska

Photos: Michał Stanisławski, Asia Rumińska

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