Bearing witness to a brighter moment in Poland’s history: Visiting Malbork Castle

Guest post by Oliver Clark

History hangs heavy over Poland, a country that has suffered more than most from war, conquest and subjugation before finally re-emerging free once again in the 20th century. But Malbork castle, just outside Gdansk, bore witness to one of the brighter moments in the country’s story.

Built by the Teutonic Knights in the 13th century, Malbork was one of a chain of fortresses built by the warrior monks to cow the local inhabitants of the lands they conquered in what is in modern day Poland, the Baltic States and the Russian province of Kaliningrad.

Driven out of the Holy Lands at the end of the 12th century, the Teutonic Knights, an order of Christian warrior monks, went first to Hungary and after being expelled from there, turned their crusading zeal to Prussia, at that time a land inhabited by pagan tribes.

Originally built as a fortified monastery, Malbork, or Marienburg to give it its Germanic name – meaning Mary’s Castle in honour of the order’s patron saint St Mary – was steadily enlarged and embellished after 1309 when the seat of the Grand Master of the order moved there from Venice.

Beyond its purely military application, Malbork is also very fine example of gothic architecture, as the castle’s listing on the UNESCO World Heritage site highlights:

“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.

“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 still retains a huge outer wall which was once surrounded by a moat, an inner much thicker ring of defences within which stands a mighty keep dominating the surrounding land and presenting a formidable defence.

Malbork was meant to be more than just a fortress. As the headquarters of the order, it was designed as much a lavish palace as a castle. Even with its now bare interior walls, it is clear that Malbork was designed for the kind of opulence that are associated with the Gulf states.

The grand master’s apartment is adorned with elegant green and gold leaf designs that can still be seen. The banqueting hall (into which the grand master could spy from his apartments), is a huge space that could have accommodated hundreds of people and provided the local nobility, for that is what the knights had become, with all the entertainment expected in an medieval court.

Elsewhere in the grounds of the keep storeshouse and gardens are in evidence, allowing the castle not only to provide its own food and wine during for its inhabitants and guests but also as a source of supply in case the castle was besieged.

Heavily restored but still impressive is the order’s chapel house, while much of the original art work was destroyed in later conflicts, some of the original sculptures remain and an excellent renovation job has gone a long way to restore the quiet magnificence of the original building.

Malbork was also an important a centre of trade and industry, as the many exhibitions inside the castle testify.

Built next to the Nogat river, the castle was on the route from the interior of Poland to the sea and the knights controlled the monopoly on amber and other goods travelling up the river to the Hanseatic cities such as Gdansk.

One of the exhibitors in the castle charts the amber trade. A huge natural flow of the prehistoric sap ran beneath the territories of the Teutonic Knights and once mined was worked into jewellery and art works that were exported across Europe.

Elsewhere the castle mixed functionality with military considerations. The ‘Toilet Tower’ which could be reached by underground passageway from the main keep was laced with explosives to prevent to allow it to become a final bastion and refuge if the rest of the castle was captured.

When the city became a member of the Hanseatic League, many Hanseatic meetings were held at Malbork and the city had many of its own industrial foundries, including blacksmiths and stables in part to support the Teutonic Knights military forces.

From the beginning Malbork would become a hated symbol of the imperialism of the German invaders and its neighbours the kingdoms of Poland and Lithuania determined to expunge the knights from their lands.

A series of wars during the 13th century culminated in a campaign in 1410 when the combined armies of Lithuania and Poland bed by the Polish king Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas crushed the knights at the battle of Grunwald.

They followed this victory up by besieging Malbork but after two months with supplies running low and relief armies on the way the Poles and their Lithuanian allies withdrew.

While the knights continued to pose a threat, after Grunwald their power was diminished and 40 years later the Poles returned during the thirteen years war to finally try to capture the great fortress. Once again they failed to evict the invaders and the siege ended due to defeats elsewhere and the collapse of the Poles allies.

The knights struggled to pay the mercenaries they had hired to defend the castle and when they left the Polish Casimir IV Jagiellon was able to enter the fortress in triumph.

Malbork would become the seat of the Polish kings and its history would ebb and flow with their fortunes and those of their country. During the 17th Century Malbork was attacked and captured again, this time by the invading Swedes during the thirty years war before being recovered.

With the close of the 18th century Malbork shared in the fate of Poland when it was handed over to Prussia during the first partition of the country. It would remain under German control for the next 150 years, apart from a brief seven year interlude during the Napoleonic Wars.

Finally with the emergence of a free Polish Republic in 1919 Malbork once again became Polish but the fortress would not escape the next invasion in 1939.

While Malbork Castle today appears to be one of the most well preserved medieval structures in Europe, sadly the reality is much of this is due to decades of tireless conservation work.

In 1945 as the Red Army advanced in the closing days of World War II, Malbork Castle became like so many other historic Polish cities and buildings a battleground. The Red Army’s artillery smashed huge holes into the walls and buildings of the castle, including almost completely destroying the castle’s chapel, as show in black and white photos on show today near the visitor centre.

The wars between the Polish kings against the Teutonic Knights of that period would take on mythical importance in the national identities of Poles, Germans and Russians, culminated in what Adolf Hitler believed was the final showdown between races during World War II.

In that sense Malbork Castle was a victim just as the rest of Poland suffered in that period, but the conservation work done to restore it to its former glories is testament to reconstruction efforts of its people and despite being symbol of foreign invasion, it is as now as much a source of national pride.

Categories: Poland, World

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3 replies »

    • “I am assuming that you mean the knights spoke Prussian? As I understand it the native Prussians of that time were wiped out or assimilated into Teutonic and then German or Polish culture when they were conquered. The only thing that survives of their culture is the name.”

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