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Malbork Castle History

Early years

At the beginning of the 13th century Polish Duke Konrad of Masovia signed a set of contracts with the Teutonic Order, which resulted in constructing strongholds on Polish and Prussian lands that served both as defensive structures and monasteries. With fire and swords, the Teutonic knights – knights with a black cross on their white coats, introduced Christianity on the lands of neighbouring Pagan tribes. In 1274 in a valley of the biggest Polish River Vistula, on the shore of the Nogat River, the Teutonic knights started to build another stronghold which very quickly was to become the seat of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order and one of the most prominent castle complexes in the world.

Around 1280 Marienburg Castle was a small commandry which was supervised by one of the Teutonic commanders. There were approximately three hundred Teutonic commandries on the lands from the Baltic Sea to Italy, that is why at the beginning St Mary Virgin Castle, i.e. Marienburg Castle, did not stand out among other strongholds at the border. It was a red brick building on a square, with towers at each of the corners, which performed not only a decorative function but also a defensive function for each of the castle wings.

The names of individual rooms typical for Catholic monasteries mean that the castle was to fulfil religious functions, i.e. a chapter house where spiritual fathers of the knight Order gathered, a dormitory {monks' bedroom}, a chapel and a refectory {dining room}. By the end of the 12th century Marienburg Castle was surrounded with defensive walls which allowed to section off a place for the cemetery and utility facilities on hillsides. At that time a settlement had been expanding around the castle. The Teutonic knights gave it town rights with a special order.

The Grand Master’s seat

In 1308 after the Teutonic knights conquered Pomerelia, they decided to move the capital of the Order from Venice to Malbork, the castle had become a place for holding the Great Meeting of the Order Council since then. Commanders of all commandries, influential clergymen and superiors of monasteries, as well as representatives of the Order from Livonia and Germany arrived there. It was during the Great Council meetings when the head of the Order, the Grand Master whose seat was also Malbork Castle, was chosen.

Starting with 1309, the castle was quickly extended and modernised as the number of Teutonic knights kept growing. In 1330 a great rebuilding was conducted, which changed the structure of the defensive complex that already consisted of three parts – the High Castle, the Middle Castle and the Low Castle. The oldest facilities in the castle, surrounded with a moat and defensive double walls, were called the High Castle; Virgin Mary church and St Ann chapel, a burial site for the Grand Masters, were housed there. All events that were important for Malbork were signalled to the neighbouring towns from the bell tower of the High Castle, using an agreed sign {fire or smoke}.

The Middle Castle is the biggest and the most luxurious part of the fortification complex of Malbork Castle, it performs representative and administrative functions. The Grand Master’s palace, the archives, an office, a workshop for manuscript writers and other facilities were located there. In the west wing was the Grand Refectory, a wonderful room for ceremonies up to 400 people. Parts of the old murals, ingenious Gothic architecture and ornamentation perfectly prove that Malbork Castle did not lag behind European kings’ residences in any way in terms of wealth and luxury.

The complex of castle facilities was heated and had a central heating system which was rare in castles in East Europe in that period. The walls of the Meeting Room were painted with fabulously expensive green paint which at that time was made from rare crustacea. The records which remained in the archives prove the great profligacy of the Grand Master who led a life of a modest monk. Guests from all countries arrived in Malbork Castle to enjoy wonderful receptions, tournaments, hunts and other entertainments for elites.

The Low Castle, i.e. the Outer Castle, was a utility part of Malbork Castle. It was situated on the hillsides, near the Nogat River. All what was necessary for the life needs of the huge order of the brotherhood was here: barns and sheds, workshops, armour warehouses, servant accommodation and many other facilities. From the Outer Castle, passing by its huge walls and having been checked at numerous gates, you could go into the Middle Castle complex and further to the High Castle. For example, one entry to the castle ran through fourteen gates, three lowered lattices and four drawbridges.

Decline of Malbork Castle

The battle of Grunwald in 1410, crucial and disastrous for the Teutonic knights, was a watershed event for Malbork Castle as nobody had dared to storm the majestic capital of Teutonic state before, until this defeat. Defeated at Grunwald, the Teutonic knights came back to Malbork but the Polish-Lithuanian forces led by King Władysław Jagiełło followed their enemy. In order to prevent the town residents from being captured, Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen ordered to burn down the town and ordered its people to shelter in the castle. The siege lasted two months but the stronghold survived despite cannon fire.

When the enemy forces were withdrawn, a time of strengthening and rebuilding the existing defensive structures started in Malbork Castle so that firearms could be used. In 1414 the stronghold was surrounded with ground schanzes and additionally with stone bastions in the 1440s from where firing at the enemy's flank was possible. The preparations made by the Teutonic knights turned out to be not groundless as Malbork Castle was stormed and survived a six-month siege again in 1454.

However, in June 1457 Polish King Casimir IV Jagiellon got into the premises of the inaccessible stronghold. The betrayal of the Czech "Hussite" army, serving the Teutonic Order, helped. The conflict between the Grand Master and mercenaries lasted more than a year. It was related to a payment for their services so a generous proposal made by King Casimir at the amount of 190,000 florins won their approval. The gates of Malbork Castle were open for the Polish army and the Grand Master himself managed to shelter in Kaliningrad, where the capital of the Teutonic Order was moved to. If fact, after the decline of Malbork Castle, the Order never managed to regain its past glory.

Polish, Sweden and Prussian rule

When the Peace of Thorn was concluded in 1466, the name Marienburg was changed into Malbork and the castle itself became one of the residences of the Polish rulers. The beautiful Grand Refectory of the former Grand Master's Palace became a place for holding royal receptions and balls, and a big arsenal and a military garrison were established on the castle premises. Malbork Castle was the epicentre of military actions in the 17th century many times during the Polish-Sweden wars. However, the wars did not result in major damage.

In July 1626 Malbork Castle was took over by the Sweden army led by King Charles Gustav, then it was extended with new bastions, redoubts and other fortifications. Retaken by Poles, in 1656 the castle was conquered by Swedes again. However, under the provisions of the Treaty of Oliva of 1660 Malbork Castle was given back to Poland. In 1756 a construction of a Jesuit college building started on its premises because the Jesuit Order took care of the old castle Virgin Mary church over many centuries.

In 1772 after the first partition of Poland, Malbork Castle was captured by the Prussian army, which made the pitiful condition of the stronghold even worse. A garrison and weapon depots were deployed in the beautiful Gothic buildings, the Grand Master's Palace shuddered because of the buzzing of weaving looms, and some part of medieval rooms was permanently destroyed. By the end of the 18th century a barbaric demolition of the old castle buildings started, which resulted in a wave of protests among city residents. In 1803 Max von Schenkendorf, a student from Kaliningrad, a poet and a romantic, published an article condemning the destroyers of the medieval architectural gem in the press in Berlin. In 1804 the authorities finally decided that the demolition of the castle was forbidden.

The rebuilding of Malbork Castle

Napoleon's forces left Malbork in 1813, leaving the city in debts which were to be paid for more than 15 years. Despite this fact, in 1916 a new period began in the life of the castle experienced by suffering. It was called the “romantic reconstruction”. The rebuilding was supervised by a special committee and led by architect August Gersdorf from 1819 to 1850. Other famous people took part in restoration work, including architect Friedrich von Schinkel, historian Johannes Voigt, and Ludwig Haebler – a pastor from Malbork and a history enthusiast.

By the end of the1850s renovated Malbork became one of the best examples of Prussian architecture of that time and enjoyed popularity among travellers. In 1872 during a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the return of West Prussia into the Kingdom of Prussia held in Malbork Castle, King of Prussia and German Empire William I took part in a feast prepared to mark this occasion. In the 1880s Conrad Steinbrecht began reconstructing the castle; he had been collecting architectural and archaeological documentation for decades, which could help in a complete renovation of the entire castle complex on a large scale.

In the time of the Third Reich Marienburg was a place where ceremonies organised by the Nazi party were frequently held, in which senior officials participated. The meetings of Hitlerjugend and Young Girl's League took place there every year, and in 1944 the castle was again transformed into a stronghold. During the bombing of the city in 1945 the castle was so severely damaged that it can be concluded that for all those years it had not been affected by so much damage. After liberation, it was practically semi-destroyed so it took many years to restore it. By 1957 Malbork Castle was a branch of Warsaw's Museum of the Polish Army, then it was given to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and left under the supervision of the Tourist and Sightseeing Organisation. In 1961 a castle museum was open. In 1997 the Teutonic Castle in Malbork was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.