Murder in Malbork Castle: The Demise of Werner von Orseln, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order
The capital castle of the Teutonic Order at Malbork, Poland, was famous for being unconquered. Apart from many battles around the castle in Malbork, these old medieval walls also saw the assassination of Grand Master Werner von Orseln, supposedly at the hands of a mad knight, known as Johan von Endorf. However, an examination of the details surrounding the murder raises questions about whether Endorf was really as mad or as guilty as he was purported to be.
The Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, is a classic example of a medieval fortress. On its completion in 1406, it became the world's largest brick castle. Nowadays, it's Poland's official national Historic Monument as designated in 1994. It also lists and is maintained by the National Heritage Board of Poland and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. After more than 600 years, it is still the largest castle in the world by surface area. Before the Teutonic Knights accomplished construction of the castle, it became the capital of their country. Nearby the castle, they created a town that the Order named Marienburg (Mary's Castle). Poland renamed this place calling it ''Malbork''.
Malbork Castle by Jeroen Fossaert ( Flickr)
The new Grand Master - Werner von Orseln
Werner von Orseln hailed from a noble family of the Counts of Falkenstein in Oberursel near Frankfurt. According to historical resources, it is now known that he joined the Teutonic Order in 1312. He held the office of a Komtur (Commander) at the Ordensburg of Ragnit near the border of the Order State with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1314, the Grand Master Karl von Trier appointed von Orseln as the Grand Komtur at Malbork Castle. During a coup d'etat in the Monastic State, von Orseln supported the Grand Master and was exiled along with him. However, he returned in 1319 and held the position of von Trier's resident in Prussia. His goal was to restore hierarchic discipline within the Order. After the death of Karl von Trier, the Order's Capitulum (Vice Master) chose von Orseln as the next Grand Master on 6 July 1324.
After being elected, von Orseln was forced to start negotiations with King Władysław I the Elbow-high of Poland. It was connected with the contested lands of Pomerania, which the Knights had annexed after the takeover of Gdańsk in 1308. Because the long discussions with Poland did not produce any results, the Teutonic Order started preparations for war with Poland.
Polish-Teutonic Battle ( public domain )
Murder at Malbork Castle
During the war, a dramatic event took place - von Orseln was murdered at Malbork Castle at the hands of a mad knight, known as Johan von Endorf, who had previously committed many crimes. The documents remember him also as Eindorf, Endorph, Gindorf, Dyngdorff, Biendorf, Grondorp, Grondorff, and Stille. His origin is still unclear.
On the 18 thNovember 1330, Endorf had arrived in Malbork and gained an audience with the Grand Master. Von Orseln agreed to his request that the conversation take place in private, so invited Endorf to his private chambers. Endorf complained about the commander in Klaipeda and asked the Grand Master to move him to a different place. Orseln disagreed and ordered him to return to the Commandery. When the chapel bell rang out announcing vespers, the governor of the Order went to the chapel, while Endorf left, not hiding his displeasure.
After finishing the prayers, the Grand Master came out of the chapel surrounded by a number of people. Endorf emerged from the side porch of the chapel and attacked him, stabbing him several times. Werner von Orseln died one hour after the event.
Golden Gate at the castle in Malbork, where on 18 November 1330, John von Endorf assassinated Grand Master Werner von Orseln ( public domain )
There are several hypotheses regarding the causes and the course of the events of November 18. According to historians, a document was written shortly after the incident by the Prussian bishops: Rudolf of Pomezania, Henry of Warmia and John Samland, who had access to the testimony of the perpetrators and bystanders close to the event. According to their report, Endorf voluntarily left the convent in Klaipeda after an argument with a local Komtur. A messenger caught up with him to persuade him to return. However, Endorf threatened him with a knife, so the messenger returned to the Commandery.
Endorf’s Trial – Guilty or Innocent?
According to a document published on 21 st November 1330, just three days after von Orseln’s murder, Endorf was declared guilty and was said to have suffered from mental illness. However, a number of facts arouse suspicion regarding the sanity of Endorf, as well as his guilt.
The first fact arousing suspicion is that information about the circumstances of the murder of Werner von Orseln was presented by the Prussian bishops, not the knights of the Teutonic Order. Furthermore, this document was hastily prepared and published, as was the burial of von Orseln, which took place at the cathedral of Marienwerder (Kwidzyn).
Three great masters were buried in the cathedral Kwidzyn - Werner von Orseln, Ludolf von Konig Wattzau, Heinrich von Plauen. (Fresco in the Cathedral in Kwidzyn)
What is known about Endorf does not suggest that he was a madman. Had Endorf truly been mentally ill, he would likely have attacked von Orseln impulsively at the first possible opportunity, that is, while he was alone with the Grand Master during their private conversation, or during prayers.
Furthermore, if the attack had originated from a knight of the Teutonic Order, like Endorf, there would have been a play for power following the death of von Orseln, but this never occurred. So if Endorf didn’t kill von Orseln, then who did?
It has been suggested that those who wished the death of Grand Master were the nobles from Poland or Lithuania. Another possibility is murder on behalf of a Livonian (from a historic region along the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea) - issued by the Archbishop of Riga, an enemy of the Order. Unfortunately, we will probably never know the truth. However, it is known what happened to Endorf. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, although some sources say that his punishment lasted very briefly.
The Teutonic Order
The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Teutonic Order, has existed since circa 1190 AD, formed to aid Christians during their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. One of their main goals was establishing hospitals. While they were established as a military order from the beginning, the military membership was small, and most of the members of Teutonic Order were focused on a wide variety of tasks.
Currently their residence is located in Vienna. In modern times, it became a purely religious Catholic order. Most of their castles are ruined or transformed into museums. The most famous ones are located in Poland, such as Radzyń Chełmiński, Malbork, and Toruń.
Featured image: Main: Teutonic Castle in Malbork, Poland ( public domain ). Inset: Portrait of Werner von Orseln ( public domain ).
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