For any medievalist, no visit to Poland can be complete without a trip to Malbork – the site of an impressive and large medieval castle. Malbork is located along the banks of the river Nogat, near the city of Gdansk. The first sections of the castle were built by the Teutonic Knights around 1280. The Teutonic Knights were a crusading military order made up of mostly Germans who were initially focused on protecting Christians in the Holy Land. Gradually, their interest shifted to Eastern Europe, where they fought against the Lithuanians and other pagan peoples, and set up their own state along the Baltic Sea.
They Teutonic Knights named this castle Marienburg after the the Virgin Mary, and over the next few decades the site saw new additions and extra fortifications built, increasing its size. By the year 1309, Malbork had become the home of the Order’s Grand Master, making the castle essentially the capital of the Teutonic state. The 14th and 15th centuries saw further expansion, until the castle became the largest Gothic fortification in Europe, and able to accommodate over 3000 fighters.
Malbork is designed to be a series of three fortifications – a High, Middle and Low Castle, which would allow defenders to fall back deeper into the fortress when pressed from attackers. The entire site takes up about 52 acres of space, and consists of several layers of defences. Towers, moats, walls, bridges and gates help add to its strength, and visitors can soon find themselves lost as they explore the castle grounds.
Walking around the interior of the castle is just as interesting. Some of the highlights include the Palace of the Grand Masters, which include the summer and winter refectories, known for their distinctive high ceilings and large windows. One can also wander through the great dining hall, guests’ chambers and reception rooms. The castle even has several rooms that had heated floors.
Another part of the castle holds St.Anne’s Chapel, where several of the Grand Masters have been buried. Throughout the castle, one can find numerous examples of medieval art, including sculptures, stained glass windows, and decorations along the walls and doorways. A museum also exists within Malbork, which allows visitors to see displays of medieval arms and armour, and an impressive collection of amber, one of the key products from this region during the Middle Ages.
The victory of the Polish-Lithuanian king Jagiello over the Teutonic Knights at the battle of Grunwald in 1410 marked a turning point in the fortunes of the military order. The Poles attempted to capture the castle later that year, but the siege failed after several weeks. Still, the Teutonic Knights were weakened and gradually lost control of their state.
In 1457, Polish forces again approached Malbork, but they now used the more subtle tactic of bribing the mercenary guards into surrendering the castle. Since then, Malbork was fought over by the Poles, Swedes and Prussians. By the 19th century efforts were underway to restore parts of the castle, but the Second World War left Malbork heavily damaged. Parts of the castle still remain in ruins.
The red bricks and grand size of Malbork make this castle distinctive and awe-inspring – any visitor will need at least two to three hours to explore the castle, and some could find themselves easily spending the whole day here. Malbork is a major tourist site, drawing more than a half-million visitors each year. The castle also holds concerts, theatrical performances and other special events, and in the third week of July it hosts the Siege of Malbork, a recreation of the 1410 siege in full historical regalia. The town of Malbork also has several historic sites, and this region of Poland is also home to other similar Teutonic fortresses.