The build: Malbork Castle was forged by the Teutonic Knights, a powerful order of German crusaders, in the 13th century. Historically known as Marienburg, it is the greatest fortification built by medieval knights during the Baltic Crusades, a mission to convert pagans to Christianity in Prussia and Lithuania. Believed to be the largest brick castle in the world, its unusual building blocks make its design stunning, both visually and militarily. Part of a network of castles with the same basic blueprint that stretch across modern-day Poland, its ingenious moat system, stand-alone tower and lofty High Castle place it among the Teutonic Order’s most incredible military –and architectural – achievements.
The siege: The castle was besieged by the combined forces of King Jagiello of Poland and Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania in 1410, shortly after the celebrated Battle of Tannenberg, fought by the knights’ Grand Master. The attackers brought an arsenal of siege weapons, including the trebuchet and light artillery. Inside Malbork, a united garrison, led by Heinrich von Plauen, fought for both their God and their lives with crossbows and heavy cannon. The outcome of this campaign would challenge the gains of the Polish crown and define the future of the Teutonic Knights.
- The Teutonic Order’s brick castles were required to store enough supplies to last for two years under siege. An inventory for Elbing from the 15th century lists 430 barrels of beer, four barrels of honey, 80 score barrels of fat, 428 sides of beef, pork and tongue, half a barrel of butter, two and a half barrels of meat and a quantity of salt. This would provision a garrison of about 40 knights and their servants.
- Malbork Castle was the earliest red-brick castle to be completed, followed by Gniew and Radzyn. At their peak, the Teutonic Order commanded some 120 castles in the region – believed to be the densest network of such fortifications in the world.
- Malbork and the Teutonic Order’s other red-brick castles were built using standardized bricks. Significantly larger than the ones we see today, they were 32 centimetres long, 15 centimetres wide, and 9 centimetres high.
- Malbork Castle’s largest room in the Knight’s Hall. Built in the early 14th century, it is a grand space designed to host visiting knights and other guests. It can hold up to 400 people.
- Jagiello (born Jogalia) first took the Lithuanian throne at the age of 26, and lived to the ripe old age of 83. Before becoming King of Poland through marriage, his men frequently launched raids against the Poles, often capturing prisoners and loot.
- In the Middle Ages, Malbork Castle was known as Marienburg. After several decades of building and expansion, the fortification grew to cover an area of more than 210,000 square metres.
- The men of the Teutonic Order lived as monks and fought as knights. Each was issued two shirts, one pair of breeches, two pairs of boots, one simple overcoat, one sleeping bag, one blanket, one knife … and one book of hymns and prayers.
- During the Baltic Crusades, men would come from all over Europe to join the Teutonic Order in their bids to convert local pagans to Christianity. Between 1305 and 1409 more than 300 campaigns were launched into neighbouring Lithuania.
- The Teutonic Knights each had to take an individual vow of poverty … but the Order itself was fabulously rich. While crusading in the Baltic region the knights exploited local resources including grain, amber and wood. In its prime the State of the Teutonic Order was the only contemporary state with no foreign debt.
- It’s believed that Heinrich von Plauen – the man who commanded Malbork Castle during the siege of 1410 – managed to garrison the stronghold with some 4,000 men before his enemies arrived at the gates. He also paid some of the castle’s inhabitants several thousand gold coins to hold out as the attack dragged on.
Featured Structure: Entrance
A castle’s entrance can be the weakest point of its defence, so special attention was generally paid to fortifying these key features. In fact, much of the military technology used to protect entry points dates back as early as the 3rd century B.C. In castle building, the first towers ever raised were constructed to provide protection for gatehouses. These were also one of the first features to make the transition from being built out of wood to being made out of stone. Castle entrances generally incorporate several defensive techniques, including fortified doorways, drawbridges, and portcullises.
At Malbork Castle in Poland, the main entrance provides access to the Middle Castle. It is secured with five iron-bound gates standing one behind the other. Behind the first massive arch lies a wooden bridge that spans over a moat. Today it is static, but in the past it could be drawn up. Past this lies a portcullis, which could be lowered almost instantaneously if the castle was under threat. The ground is corbelled, and specially-laid stones marked the way for carts to they did not damage the walls. Malbork’s gates were designed to accommodate horses, but each was equipped with a smaller door that could be opened to admit those travelling by foot.
Malbork Castle’s motion comic reveals a bloody mystery that may have tipped the outcome of the famous Battle of Tannenberg, which occurred shortly before the 1410 attack on the Teutonic Knights’ Malbork Castle. The castle’s build, as well as this siege are profiled in Battle Castle Episode 5: Malbork Castle. This comic contains stylized violence.