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Picture taken in Malbork after Wikimania 2010 conference. Panorama of Malbork Castle.

Malbork Castle: Searching for Treasure and Legends in the Shadows of the Teutonic Order

Today, Malbork Castle is a magnificent fortress located in northern Poland, but in the past it was the capital of the Teutonic Order. It was built in the 13th century when the Grand Master decided to move from Venice to Prussia. Nowadays, it is one of the biggest medieval Gothic brick castles in the world, but this grand construction still holds many secrets.

Malbork castle is located near the river of Nogat, 25 miles (40.23 km) from the Baltic Sea. The castle was built in stages between 1276 and 1406. It was a complete construction - roofed, floored, and windowed, until 1945, when the Russian army damaged it. The castle covers 52 acres and is protected by the river and strong walls. Over the centuries it has stood as the symbol of the city of Malbork (earlier Marienburg).

An Exotic Castle from the Holy Land?

Although the castle was built in Gothic medieval style, there may be different origins for one of its walls. According to legend, when the first knights of the Teutonic Order (whose full name was The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem) left the Holy Land, they brought some bricks with them from the house where Jesus ate the last supper - Cenacle. It’s also believed that it was the first dwelling of the Order. Many researchers have tried to find confirmation for this story, but so far no concrete evidence has been found.

The castle was a unique place in this part of the world due to its exotic inhabitants. The knights were famous for their love of animals, and they liked to import many unusual species. Several knights had dogs, cats, and birds. The castle was full of different parrots and other exotic animals like monkeys and a giraffe. During the reign of the grand master Conrad von Jungingen, a part of the castle's wall paintings was actually damaged by creative monkeys.

Konrad von Jungingen.

Konrad von Jungingen. ( CC-BY-SA 4.0 )

Grand master Karl von Trier, who served from 1311 to 1324, kindly asked his knights to not take their dogs, cats, and other animals to the church and the chapel because they disturbed the ceremonies. However, the knights didn't seem to care much about his request.

The Knights Leave the Castle

The castle was impressive during the medieval period and its history only grew with the following years. As Anthony Emery concluded in his work about the architecture and history of the castle:

''With the conquest of the Prussian region completed, the second stage of the Order's crusade was to overrun Lithuania, the newly established state to the east developed by several pagan rulers against Mongol pressure. This vast region extended well beyond the river Dneiper, almost as far as Moscow, though relations with the re-united Polish kingdom (1320) were far from calm. The Order's conquest lasted for over a century with limited success, even though there had been a steady flow of guest crusaders from the second quarter of the 14th century as it was the only region still practicing the crusader concept against the infidel. The Order was at the peak of its authority and power with many visitors following in the footsteps of the English pioneers of 1328-29. The French followed a little later. Subsequent crusaders included leading members of the Lovell, Scrope, Beauchamp and Percy families as well as Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby (later Henry IV). He and his entourage fought at the siege of Vilnya (1390), stayed several months at Konigsberg, and returned there two years later.''

Vorburg with rampart added under Hochmeister Heinrich von Plauen, 15th century.

Vorburg with rampart added under Hochmeister Heinrich von Plauen, 15th century. ( Public Domain )

After long and expensive wars with their neighbors, the Grand Master had to make a tough decision. Although it was practically impossible to conquer Malbork castle, it had to be sold by the Teutonic Order in 1450. Despite the centuries of fighting and successful Christianizing of the lands, the Teutonic Order had to leave Pomerania and the areas around it.

They lost lots of land, many castles and significance in the political arena, but the brotherhood survived. Nowadays, their main residence is in Vienna, Austria. They are no longer knights, but now called priests and they continue to be ruled by a grand master, exactly like in medieval times.

Architectural Pride and Royal Inspiration

The castle has also been a witness to many political events and visits by royalty. In the 14th century, Polish king Casimir the Great visited the castle while his own residence was still made of wooden planks. The king was so irritated with this fact that nowadays he is famous for being the king who ruled “wooden Poland.” Polish tourist guides like to discuss other aspects of the Polish history of the castle as well, however, that timeframe is not as impressive as when the original inhabitants were housed within the fortress.

In the 19th century, a big project was started to restore the castle. It was carried out throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. Two of the most famous men who led this project were Conrad Steinbrecht and Bernhard Schmid. The first one wanted to make Malbork Castle the idyllic castle with decorations related to the famous Nibelungenlied epic poem, which was very famous in Germany. Schmid, on the other hand, hoped to bring back the lost glory and ascetic style characteristic of the Teutonic Order. Both ideas failed due to World War II and tragic damage of the castle by the Russian army in 1945. However, many of the paintings created by Steinbrecht’s team still decorate the walls of the castle.

Castle in 1890/1905, during the German Empire.

Castle in 1890/1905, during the German Empire. ( Public Domain )

Malbork Today

Malbork castle is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thousands of tourists visit the castle every year. The castle is systematically restored, and every year researchers find out new information and lost treasures of all sizes. There are still many unsolved secrets related to hidden sacks of money and ghost sightings in and around the castle. There are so many legends and tales that Malbork castle will continue to surprise researchers for decades to come.

Top image: Picture taken in Malbork after Wikimania 2010 conference. Panorama of Malbork Castle. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

K. Gorski, Dzieje Malborka, 1973.

S. Jóźwiak, J. Trupinda, Organizacja życia na zamku krzyżackim w Malborku w czasach wielkich mistrzów (1309 – 1457), 2007.

Malbork Castle, available at:
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/847

Malbork Castle - Poland by Anthony Emery, available at:
http://www.castlestudiesgroup.org.uk/Malbork%20-%20Anthony%20Emery.pdf

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