Malbork Castle

Castle plan: A-upper castle, B-middle castle, C-low castle, 1-bridge, 2-gate and Bridge Towers, 3-outer defensive walls, 4-moat, 5-St Nicholas Gate, 6-Shoemaker Gate, 7-Sparrow Tower, 8-Wicket Gate, 9-nameless tower, 10-Toward Town Tower, 11-nameless tower, 12-Nad Piekarnią Tower, 13-Podstarościego Tower, 14-Vogts Tower, 15-Powder Tower, 16-hexagonal tower, 17-Szarysz Tower, 18-Clock Tower, 19-Kęsa Tower, 20-Maślankowa Tower, 21-St Lawrence Gate


On 18 July 1410, Heinrich von Plauen arrived in haste at Malbork Castle, located on a branch of the River Vistula, 25 miles from the Baltic Sea. This was the principal base of the Order of Teutonic Knights, and the administrative centre of the Baltic state these warrior monks had carved out while pursuing the conversion of the pagan tribes of north-east Europe. Word had reached von Plauen of a terrible battle in which the grand master of the Order and other leading knights had been slain. Acting leader, he had travelled as fast as he could, with the two thousand soldiers he had held back at his own castle of Schwetz, upriver to the south-west. He put the interest of the Order first, leaving Schwetz at the mercy of the invading Polish-Lithuanian army in a desperate bid to secure Malbork. At around the same time, the garrison at Malbork was further reinforced by nearly 1,500 survivors of the battle; a small complement of the force which had suffered such losses. These men were in a desperate state. All were weary and many displayed wounds sustained in the fighting three days earlier. They relayed blood-curdling accounts – which did nothing to cheer the already despondent garrison – of one of the largest and most murderous battles fought anywhere in medieval Europe.

In fields near the village of Tannenberg, among the streams of the Mazurian marshes, the Teutonic Knights had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Polish king. Some 8,000 of their soldiers had been killed, another 14,000 taken captive, and hundreds of their most important members did not rise from the battlefield. If spirits were not low enough at Malbork, as news of the disaster travelled north with the bedraggled survivors, a wagon arrived at the castle gates. In it were the bodies of the Order’s highest-ranking officials, the men who had led the Teutonic Knights only days earlier on the fateful march east to cover the movements of the vast enemy army. Among them were Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, Grand Marshal Friedrich von Wallenrode, and Grand Treasurer Thomas von Merheim – wrapped in clean white sheets and dressed in purple robes in preparation for a dignified burial at Malbork.

The task now faced by von Plauen was a daunting one. For some time it had been clear that the huge invading army of the Polish-Lithuanian alliance was not interested in half measures. They sought nothing less than a comprehensive victory over the Teutonic Order. To achieve this, victory on the battlefield was only the first step. They knew they had to capture and destroy the heavily fortified castle at Malbork, the aim being the end of the state the Order had ruled for nearly two centuries along the shore of the Baltic Sea.

Such was the scale of the allied triumph at Tannenberg that their momentum seemed unstoppable. With Teutonic castles surrendering left and right to the forces of King Władysław II of Poland and Grand-Duke Vytautas of Lithuania – Olsztyn, Morag, Preussmarkt and Dzierzgoń among numerous others – many among the garrison at Malbork were resigned to defeat and ready to give up the castle without a fight. At this point, von Plauen took it upon himself to turn things around, to motivate the substantial garrison he now commanded to hold onto the great castle for the sake of the Teutonic Order he had vowed to defend.


The year 1099 saw the success of the First Crusade by European Christians to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim control. It established a precedent, and an ambition, which would persist for the next two hundred years – and a militant approach to conquering and converting the ‘heathen’ which would last longer than that.

Shortly after this initial Crusade, two religious orders formed which sought to protect the increasing number of pilgrims now flocking to the Holy Land. Known as the ‘Knights Hospitaller’ and the ‘Knights Templar’, they combined the aggressive fighting skills needed to provide military protection, with a spiritual and ascetic life becoming to those in holy orders. Then, at the point when they were losing their initial impetus, they were joined by a third organisation. In 1190, the Order of Teutonic Knights was created, not by clerics, but by the German merchants of Bremen and Lubeck.

Redirecting their focus from the Holy Land to the pagan lands of the Baltic, the Knights launched a ‘northern Crusade’. This would become an outlet for the zeal of Christian warriors now that the Levant – the hinterland of the eastern Mediterranean shore – seemed lost. This campaign received wide support in Christendom, and chimed with the ethos of the medieval German Church, which encompassed a militant element. The Holy Roman Emperor authorised the conquest of Prussia as part of the Empire’s policy against heathen nations. And the Pope issued a bill granting the Order rights of conquest over land won.

The Knights quickly overran the lower reaches of the River Vistula, building their first castles during the 1230s, of timber and earth banks. In a land of rivers, swamp and forest, a scanty supply of good building stone meant it was used only for foundations. Over the following decades they expanded their control along the Baltic coast. The Order’s close ties with German merchants ensured a steady stream of colonists who were attracted by privileges; the influx fostered an attitude to the non-German population which was increasingly ruthless. Towns were established and castles built, or rebuilt, from brick. The business of constant warfare and hospitality demanded a regular source of income so that the Knights became deeply involved in the economy of the lands they occupied, trading particularly in wheat, wool and amber. In 1283, the Order established its own state, which became the dominant political and economic force in the region.

Aggressive expansion motivated the Knights even when religious conversion was not a justification. During the fourteenth century, at their height, Pomerania to the west was targeted in a bid to link the Teutonic state with the German lands. In 1308 the important Baltic port of Gdańsk was captured. Then, to counter papal criticism by proving their crusading role was paramount, the Knights turned eastwards to the vast state of Lithuania, which covered much of present-day Russia from the Baltic to the Ukraine.

The harsh Baltic winters meant campaigns differed from those elsewhere in Europe. Cavalry had to ride in single file, through trenches cut deep in the snow. But in the dense forests of Lithuania, where most campaigning took place during the fourteenth century, winter was often preferred for raids because visibility was clearer after the deciduous leaves had fallen. Frozen rivers became ‘winter roads’, facilitating deep penetration into the pagan lands. Later in the year forest undergrowth hampered movement, while melt-water swelled the rivers, turning their banks to mud and taking a heavy toll on horses.

The Crusade lasted nearly a century, bringing bloodshed as well as much valuable booty for the knights. They overwhelmed the lands of pagan communities up to the River Dnieper and almost as far as Moscow, launching campaign after campaign deep into the dense forests of Lithuania. They were assisted by a steady flow of Crusaders from Western Europe. With Christendom defeated in the Holy Land, knights from France, Spain and England travelled east to support the work of the Teutonic Order. Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, was present with three hundred men at the siege of Vilnius in 1390, and numerous other Englishmen had joined this northern Crusade during the fourteenth century. Visiting knights were entertained generously at a rapidly-growing network of over 120 castles, of which Malbork, having moved to the centre from the state’s western edge as its territory expanded, became the principal. They were distinguished from most medieval castles in Europe by two characteristics: they were as much monastic as military structures, and they were largely built not of stone but of red brick.

For all the Order’s attempts to claim a divine purpose, however, it was clear that evangelical objectives were no longer foremost. Territorial domination and economic control of the Baltic lands took precedence over the enforced conversion of pagans to Christianity – and, inevitably, the Knights’ policy of aggressive expansion had led to confrontation with Poland, their most powerful neighbour; a country which longed for access to the Baltic Sea.

Polish rulers, based in their capital at Kraków, became bitterly hostile to the expansionist Teutonic state, but their military campaigns against it were intermittent and unsuccessful. In 1386, however, the situation changed. The grand duke of Lithuania accepted the crown of Poland as Władysław II, having converted to Christianity himself and married that country’s queen. Together they united the two states of Poland and Lithuania against the common enemy sandwiched in between. At the same time, divisions grew within the Teutonic state between the monastic knights and the German settlers, creating an opportunity for its enemies. In 1410, an attempt would be made to halt the Order’s expansion once and for all.

Plan of middle and upper castle from the end of the 14th / beginning of the 15th century by A.Franaszak, K.Solak


For centuries conquest has been consolidated by military construction, and this was certainly the case in Teutonic Prussia, where a network of castles was created denser than anywhere else in Europe (each within a day’s march of another to ensure that relief was at hand). In the late thirteenth century – as Edward I built Conwy and other great castles to tighten his grip on Wales – at Malbork, work began to assert the authority of the Teutonic Knights over their expanding state.

Tracing its history, however, is difficult. Whereas there are royal records detailing the construction of the castles at Conwy and Harlech and the earlier English royal castle at Dover, no documents survive to illuminate the building of Malbork. Historians are forced to rely on architectural detailing in an effort to understand the construction phases of this vast castle. Nevertheless, much can be deduced.

When the first part of Malbork to be built – the ‘Upper’ castle – was begun in 1276, the region lay on the western extremity of Teutonic Prussia. Under the German commander Heinrich von Wilnowe, work began on a fortified religious settlement which could consolidate the rule of the Order in an area which had recently witnessed a failed uprising by the local population. Unlike many earlier castles of the Order, which depended on locally-available resources, this was not to be built from wood. Skilled craftsmen were brought from Germany – brick-makers and layers, glaziers, carpenters, blacksmiths – while basic labourers were commandeered locally. Brick walls were constructed on foundations of hard rock that rendered mining very difficult. At Malbork – on the banks of the River Nogat, flowing north-east from the Vistula into the Vistula Lagoon – the first 4 to 7 feet of walling was built on massive boulders taken from the bed of the adjacent river, in-filled with smaller stones.

The castle was finished by about 1300. Its first phase took the form of four wings with three storeys, high pitched roofs – steeply angled to cast off the snow – and built around a square cloistered courtyard. A fortified quadrangle of this sort constituted a recurring design among Teutonic castles. It encompassed a church, chapter house, dining hall, kitchen and dormitories. This combination of elements was not found together in Western Europe: a holy cloister within a formidable military enclosure, a monastery within a castle. The style was austere, in keeping with the Order’s code which eschewed frippery in favour of a hard life of prayer and military rigour. In their hall the brothers ate communally: simple fare, consumed in silence or in contemplation of a lesson read aloud, unless the presence of visiting Crusaders justified an exemption. Hospitality as well as worship and defensibility was at the core of the castle’s purpose.

An outer court accommodated support staff and services, protected by a moat and a curtain wall. The ground floor rooms, massively vaulted, were used for storage of food, drink, weapons and other materials, all necessary for the lifestyle of the knights. A prison was built conveniently adjacent to the guard room, perhaps intended for high-status prisoners. The kitchen vault was supported on a line of circular columns, with the principal hearth served by a flue that rose above the roofline of the castle. The serving areas were placed on one side, with a dumb-waiter on the other to transfer food to the second-floor dining hall with its seven windows and central columns supporting painted vaulting.

Of the four wings, two had dormitories on the first floor which slept some sixty people, while another twenty or so officials and dignitaries slept in smaller rooms in a third wing. From the mid-fourteenth century they were served by a detached lavatory tower, the dansk tower, linked to the castle by a first-floor corridor. This was originally built of wood and later rebuilt in brick on an arcaded support in the late nineteenth century. It was probably also intended as a final resort during a siege; towers with this dual function were a recurring feature in Teutonic castles. Another survives at Toruń, while the communal lavatory tower at Kwidzyn, with its arcaded corridor to the fortress, is another remarkable example.

On the fourth side of the courtyard lay the chapter house and the great church – always the most important structure for this monastic order, and especially so here, where it would become the Order’s primary church in Prussia. Its entrance is striking, with a line of five recessing columns and capitals and figured arches set in a vaulted bay. Richly painted, and decorated with glazed clay tiles of animals, this lavish portal illustrates the Last Judgement and has been known since at least the fourteenth century as the ‘Golden Gate’. The church is divided into two parts – the nave of the 1280s, and an apse extension of the early 1330s. Vaulting runs over both nave and apse (and also in the chapter house) dating from 1331–44: the earliest ribbed vault in the Baltic coastal region, influenced perhaps by the recent development of English chapter houses like York and Wells.

The remodelled church became the growing organisation’s spiritual centre – surmounted now by a slender bell tower. Outside stood the patroness of the Order: a 26-foot stucco relief of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, richly-coloured and clad in elaborate Venetian mosaic work. Marienburg, as Malbork was then known, means ‘the fortress of Mary’, and the life of the warrior monks was organised around the festivals associated with the Virgin. In the early fourteenth century the grand master commanded every member to recite a Salve Regina or an Ave Maria every hour of the day, while other Teutonic castles – Marienwerder, Frauenburg – also invoked her protection. Below the apse is the ground floor chapel of St Anne which was set aside for the tombs of the grand masters. Thirteen were buried here from 1341 – including Ulrich von Jungingen, slain on the fields near Tannenberg.

The continued expansion of the Teutonic state meant that what was initially an outpost relatively near the border had quickly moved towards the heartland. In 1308, less than a decade after Malbork’s first incarnation was completed, the Knights conquered the port city of Gdańsk and the adjacent region of Pomerania. They massacred many of the local inhabitants and imported large numbers of German settlers. Shortly after this, the headquarters of the Teutonic Order was moved from Elblag (Elbing to German-speakers) 15 miles south to the more secure town of Malbork. A year later this shift was confirmed when the grand master of the Order also transferred his base to Malbork from Venice – the latter location, convenient when shipping men to the Holy Land had been the Knights’ primary purpose, was less useful now that the Baltic was their principal theatre.

This move by the head of the Teutonic Order was accompanied by a rise in the number of knights visiting Malbork en route to or from attacks against the Order’s enemies. Further expansion was required if the castle was to provide enough accommodation of suitable quality for these visitors. From 1310, the Upper Castle was extended by a Middle Castle, with an imposing gatehouse and three wings surrounding a much larger courtyard. This was major work that would continue into the second half of the fourteenth century. The new building included a sequence of rooms for visiting knights and honoured guests, and a great hall for their meals and entertainment. A new outer castle was also developed to the east, with stables, barns, granaries, a bakery, foundry and workshops, spread across a vast courtyard. This covered almost the same area as the town of Malbork on the other side of the Upper Castle. At the same time a permanent bridge, flanked by towers, was built across the river.

The new Knights’ Hall could hold some four hundred guests, and was one of the great secular apartments of medieval Europe – its fine painted walls lit by large windows and crowned by a complex vaulted roof. Leading up a stair from the hall, as in any great medieval residence, were the private apartments of the lord, in this case the grand master. Developed in three stages as the Teutonic Order grew in importance during the fourteenth century, from a relatively modest lodging it became one of medieval Europe’s outstanding palaces – no less so for being set within a highly defensive complex. This is particularly apparent from the riverside, where an elaborate frontage rises through four storeys to a wall-walk crowned by a high pitched roof. It is decorated with arcading, traceried windows, six-sided turrets and panelled battlements in stone and brick, a stark contrast to the military façades of the Upper Castle and the relative simplicity of the Knights’ Hall nearby. Having the grand master’s private palace here in the Middle rather than the Upper Castle, meant he could more easily entertain his guests and preserve, in the Upper Castle, a serenity in keeping with its quasi-monastic function.

From the high end of the Knights’ Hall a stair opens into an ante-chamber, leading onto the richly decorated reception room, the Master’s private chapel, and then his bedchamber. Late in the fourteenth century, this suite was enhanced by a lavish new wing, built facing the river to provide further reception rooms and two additional dining rooms or refectories. Used in summer and winter respectively, the latter were used primarily as audience chambers for receiving envoys and honoured guests. The Summer Refectory used expensive stone brought from Sweden, with a single pillar supporting the ribs of a complex radiating vault that rests on corbels between the large windows. The Winter Refectory had heating vents in the floor and a lower ceiling, but was similarly vaulted from a central granite column. Its walls were painted with wreaths of flowers, and figurative or heraldic motifs. This new building was one of the architectural glories of medieval Europe, at odds with the wholly military character of the earlier castle, and it marks the zenith of the Order’s power and authority.

Beneath the grand master’s private residence additional rooms were created in which the administrative functions of the Order were carried out – a fundamental concern now that Malbork had become the Knights’ primary seat – and a chancellery responsible for the financial well-being of the Order was located in offices below the two dining rooms.

By the early fifteenth century Malbork stood much as it is seen today, with the walled and gated town adding further protection to the castle. Developed over more than a century, Malbork was now among the largest fortresses in the world – covering more than twice the area of the town that protects its western flank. The various stages of building had produced not one castle but three, within a single gigantic enclosure – a fitting seat of power for the ambitious Teutonic state.

For all its emphasis on devotion and splendour, the builders never lost sight of the fact that this was a castle for knights who were not native to the region and who were always under threat from the surrounding population and from external invasion. These men relied on networks of such castles as bases from which to shelter, and mount sorties to quell unrest. From the time that it became the Order’s primary seat of power, Malbork, in particular, needed to be thoroughly secure.

Approached from outside it is obvious that this was a defensive fortress as well as a palace. The entrance to the castle from the town was joined by a second from across the river. This bridge has since gone, but the two pyramid-capped gate-towers which commanded this approach from the mid-fourteenth century still stand. All three castles – High, Middle and Outer – were surrounded by moats. The entire fortress was ringed with concentric walls capable of being isolated and defended independently. Most of the corners were protected by square or rectangular towers, some high enough to serve as watch-towers or defensive posts. All gates and passages were protected by drawbridges, portcullises, iron-clad doors, shooting galleries and machicolations (see Machicolations box). By the second half of the fourteenth century the castle was among the most impregnable in Europe, and as such was the obvious target for any army that wished to strike at the heart of the Teutonic state. But it was not long before it would face the greatest threat in its history.

In the mid-summer of 1410 the knights assembled a substantial army in the Outer Castle, in readiness to defend the Order, according to their oaths. The combined armies of Poland and Lithuania had crossed its borders seeking a decisive confrontation. It was a daunting prospect, but confidence remained high: the Knights had known few permanent setbacks during the previous century and a half, and were instilled with the conviction that – with God’s and the Virgin’s help – their righteous cause would triumph.

The knights left Malbork on horseback, attired in their traditional uniform – a white mantle, emblazoned with a black cross, over body armour of iron or steel, with plates covering the front and back, which in turn covered a chain-mail hauberk extending over the body, arms and legs. By their sides they bore swords which, from the early fourteenth century, had been enhanced with an extended grip and double-edged blade to help overcome the increasing weight and robustness of armour. As they rode they unfurled banners which they believed were God’s as well as their own. They went now to face a man who, though born a pagan, had fervently embraced the same Christian God. The strength that each side derived from their faith would only add to the brutality of the confrontation.