…with walls 27 ft high and 7 feet thick…and with outermost castle walls that enclose 52 acres. For perspective, that is four times the enclosed area of Windsor Castle. Amazingly, this huge German medieval structure still exists… it has survived the ages and is now 743 years old, although it is no longer located within the borders of Germany.
Marienburg Castle was built by the Teutonic Order, a German Roman Catholic religious order of crusaders, in the form of an Ordensburg fortress. The Order named it Marienburg (Mary’s Castle) and the town which grew around it was also named Marienburg. The Castle fortess was constructed in 1274, after the uprising and re-conquest of ferocious pagan tribes in Prussia. Its immediate purpose was to maintain control of the area in the event of any future uprisings of the Baltic tribes.
Meanwhile, the Grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, Siegfried von Feuchtwangen, surveyed the world situation from his headquarters in Venice. He concluded that his primary mission of Crusading in the Middle East appeared to be at an end. In France, the King’s theft of riches accumulated by the French Knights Templar, combined with an unjust and deadly papal persecution of the Templars, caused a sense of danger in the air. The winds of change must have felt ominous to the German Crusader Knights. As a result, in 1309, Grandmaster von Feuchtwangen decided to move his headquarters from Venice to the Marienburg Castle in remote Prussia. From the Marienburg Castle in Prussia he could continue to lead crusades for the Church and Pope and also rule the growing Monastic State of the Teutonic Order with the Kaiser’s blessing. He would lead the Northern Crusades for the Pope and be esteemed as a Prince of the German Holy Roman Empire, yet remain safely outside the Empire’s borders.
The Grandmaster soon made several additions to the castle so that it would become impregnable and properly showcase the power of the Teutonic Knights. Thus it became the largest fortress in Europe, consisting of several subdivisions and numerous layers of defensive walls. It consisted of three separate castles – the High, Middle and Lower Castles, separated by multiple dry moats and towers. The castle once housed approximately 3,000 “brothers in arms”.
The Monastic State of the Teutonic Order lasted 300 years. For most of these years the Marienburg Castle was its capital and was used to host international warrior guests who came to help the Crusader Monks convert pagan Lithuanians, Prussians, Latvians and Estonians. The position of the castle on the river Nogat allowed easy access by barges and trading ships arriving from the Vistula and the Baltic Sea.
During their governance, the Teutonic Knights collected river tolls from passing ships, as did their other castles along the rivers. They controlled a monopoly on the trade of amber and when the city became a member of the Hanseatic League, many Hanseatic meetings were held at the Marienburg Castle. During the major crusading campaigns, which were conducted during freezing cold winters, the adjoining Nogat River served as a frozen highway to the otherwise hard to reach interior of the Baltic area states.
The castle was impregnable and was never defeated in battle, withstanding even a two month siege by a combined Polish-Lithuanian-Russian-Tartar army in 1410. The siege occurred right after a greatly outnumbered Teutonic Knights field army was defeated near Tannenberg. Although the Order’s leaders, including the Grandmaster, were killed in battle, the Teutonic Order did not lose the war. A quick thinking lower level Knight, Heinrich von Plauen raced to Marienburg and took charge. He ordered the city adjoining the Castle burned to the ground and rallied the townspeople and skeleton crew of Knights to make a strong defense. After two months of frustrating siege, the massive enemy force …struck with dysentery and restless to get home for harvest…began to dissolve and return to their respective countries. The defense of Marienburg Castle prevented the Teutonic Order from losing this war.
However, there were many complicated events that followed later in the 15th century, and the Marienburg Castle was always involved. The towns of Prussia were rapidly growing economically and the rule of the Teutonic Knights was seen as too oppressive. Taxpayers revolted against increased taxes and the imposition of grain sale license fees that were hindering economic development. At the same time the nobility wanted a larger say in the running of the country, looking enviously at neighboring Poland, where the Polish nobility enjoyed wider privileges. All of this upheaval culminated in a civil war in Prussia.
Known as the Thirteen Years War, from 1454 to 1466, it was fought by rebelling Prussian cities allied with Poland… versus the Teutonic Knights and cities that remained loyal. Both sides hired mercenaries, mostly from Bohemia, to assist them.
After 3 years of war, when the Teutonic Order was unable to pay the mercenaries that defended their main stronghold, the Marienburg, the Poles tried an innovative approach…they obtained a loan from the rebelling City of Danzig and paid the Bohemian mercenaries to leave the castle, allowing the Poles to enter and seize Marienburg without using force. Another 10 years of fighting raged on but by 1466, both sides were thoroughly exhausted by the 13 years of conflict. A treaty was signed…West Prussia became autonomous as a protectorate of Poland and East Prussia remained land of the Teutonic Knights. Königsberg Castle became the Order’s new headquarters..
At this point the Marienburg Castle in West Prussia began its new life as one of several residences of Polish royalty, until the Thirty Years War, when Sweden occupied the Castle…in 1626 and 1629 and again from 1656 to 1660.
During all the years that Marienburg Castle was occupied by Poland and Sweden, the Teutonic Knights’ State of East Prussia was developing gradually into a new nation. In 1525 it was secularized by the last Grandmaster, Albrecht von Hohenzollern. Then through family inheritance, Hohenzollern East Prussia merged with the Hohenzollern State of Brandenburg and soon after 1701 the merged sates became known as the Kingdom of Prussia. In less than a century after this merger, Prussia became a leading power in Europe and its King, Frederick the Great, defeated Poland and reclaimed West Prussia in 1772. The Marienburg Castle was again a German castle, albeit in a state of disrepair.
After the first defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the castle became a symbol of Prussian history and national consciousness. Repairs were initiated over the decades and finally completed in 1902. The occasion was celebrated with a visit by the King of Prussia who was also Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In the last months of WWII, the venerable Marienburg was still intact, but it was too symbolic for the Russians. The castle was purposely wrecked to the point that only 50% remained standing.
After WWII, both West and East Prussia plus Pomerania,Posen and Silesia were removed from Germany. The Allies decided to distribute these German lands to Russia, Lithuania, and Poland. The wrecked Marienburg went to Poland, where its history was honored and serious work was undertaken to recreate as much as possible of the castle. Today the 743 year old Marienburg Castle can still be visited…it’s a major tourist attraction in Poland, but the Castle has been re-named “Malbork”.