Explore the Castle of the Teutonic Knights
This travel article explores the magnificent Malbork castle, headquarters of the Teutonic Knigths in Poland until their defeat in Grunwald in 1410.
The largest feudal castle in Europe, at Malbork in Poland, captures both the eye and the imagination. There is nothing subtle or fairy tale about this great Gothic pile – it sits squat, solid and massive, creating an awesome impact of power.
It has all the requisite features one expects from the very best of castles – bastions, moats, defensive walls, towers, and courtyards. All have been lovingly restored in dark red brick.
You can’t help but feel a thrill as you enter the massive main gates. Imagine passing through this vast portal, either as one of the armed and feared Teutonic Knights, who set up their headquarters here in the last half of the 13th century to help defeat Polish enemies and rule their own northern Baltic territories, or as a prisoner, wounded, or in chains, conquered but perhaps not vanquished in spirit.
The Knights defeated the Polish enemies, but the Poles found their guests rather difficult to expell. The Knights stayed on, accumulating territory, power, and wealth through the control of the lucrative amber trade.
The complex consists of three sections: the Low, being the newest area, built during the 14th to the early 15th century. The Middle dates from 1308-9 when the Knights captured Gdansk and the castle had to be rapidly enlarged to accommodate the increased personnel this new victory caused. The High section, which is the oldest, and includes the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, was built in 1274-80. Another highlight of this 13th century High period is The Golden Gate.
You can take a tour or wander around on your own with the help of a guide book. Several hours are easily spent roaming through this mighty citadel, with its many rooms and passageways, and trying to recapture the atmosphere of days long gone.
This is not a difficult – flagstone floors, thick walls, narrow windows, arched Gothic ceilings, spiral stairways and slender twisting passageways that run between the walls all help to revive the life of the knights of ages past.
A lot of the rooms now display items of medieval life, including weapons – impressive suits of armour, maces, axes, etc. But there’s also one with a fabulous collection of amber.
Samples of the fossilised resin, of many shades from yellow to brown, were worked into wonderful shapes – beautiful pieces of decorative art and jewellery, including fantastically intricate crosses, alters and other objects. There are also displays of ceramics, sculpture, paintings, and other crafts and artwork.
Decline of the Knights
The Order reached its peak under the directorship of the Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode (1351-82). Then it began to decline. As one would expect from a fighting Order, it didn’t go down without a struggle.
The Battle of Grunwald
The great battle of Grunwald, in 1410, where several forces were ranged against the Knights, sounded their death knell. But it was not until 1466, after the signing of the Peace of Torun, and the retreat of the Knights to Königsburg, that the castle finally passed into Polish hands.
The battle site, close to the castle is worth a visit, especially in the late afternoon. With no guides, no tour groups, and few other visitors, you can be alone to gaze at the monument piercing the pale blue sky, and to study the battle layout set in concrete – the forces of the Knights arrayed against those of King Ladislaus Jagiellon and his allies.