Malborg Castle near Gdansk

Malbork Castle is the biggest brick castle in the world. Are there are any bigger stone castles? I took a free English language tour with a very knowledgeable guide. He explained the entrance fee was so cheap, only eight zloty, because it was a Monday, the castle workers’ day off and many parts of the castle were not open – !

Anyway, way back in the 13th century, the Monks/Knights of the Teutonic Order decided that there was no future for them in Jerusalem. Being the younger sons of nobility, they didn’t want to be ordinary monks but wanted power and lands of their own. They discovered that a large area of current-day Poland was inhabited by the Prussians, a group of pagans just ripe for forced conversion into Christianity. These monks/knights conquered the lands and proceeded to build 120 castles on it with each castle being about 30 km from its neighbours. Malbork, being the seat of the Grand Master became the biggest and grandest of all the castles. Its name in German is the Marienburg, named after Mary whom they idolized even more so than Jesus.

The castle, covering an area of 21 hectares had six defensive walls, three moats and three main buildings, each of which was well defended. The highest castle with its church was the living quarters of the Grand Master and about 120 knights, all of whom were the younger sons of nobility. The middle castle catered for about 400 extra knights and assorted visitors. The lowest castle was the living and working quarters for the servants. It has been estimated that it took 60 million bricks to build the castle. The walls are four metres thick and of solid brickwork. All the bricks were made on site.

We walked through the first gateway and along an open area which ended in a 90 degree turn into the second gateway. The castle was designed according to the common building regulations of all Teutonic Order castles. The open area was designed so that soldiers could observe everyone walking along it and could shoot arrows at anyone from the safety of the ramparts. Each gateway was built in a hollow square with drawbridge and portcullis on two sides. The ceilings had murder holes in them and the walls had arrow slits. Any enemies who got within a gateway could be slaughtered without risk.

The middle castle was built around a large quadrangle with cobblestones and lawns. There was a bath house because cleanliness was a very important part of Teutonic life, travel was incredibly difficult and travellers invariably arrived absolutely filthy and desperate for a wash. Nearby was an underground heating system, one of 12 in the castle. Wood was burned in a furnace, stones in an oven above were heated until they were red hot. The fire was left to die down and as the stones cooled, the warmed air was ducted to the various rooms as needed.

We saw one of the toilet buildings, again one of 12. The entrance to the toilet corridor was marked by a special little figure with crossed legs and a beard pointing to the right. Education was so expensive that younger sons were never taught to read so signs were useless. Crossed legs is obvious but the beard? It was a directional sign – turn right. This toilet was at the top of its own tower over a moat, some metres away from the main castle building. Teutonic building regulations specified that at least one toilet had to be a last stand defensive building. If needed, the knights could run to it, burn down the wooden bridge linking to the castle and defend the toilet with their last breath. I wondered if sliding down the toilet hole into the moat below was part of the plan.

The two outer moats were filled with running water brought from a lake 30 km away. The water then flowed into the river, taking with it all the waste from the castle. The third moat was dry so that the local peasants could bring their livestock to shelter there when under attack.

The Teutonic Order was incredibly rich. Our guide showed us a replica of a shilling which was the wage for a day’s work. One kilogram of sugar brought from the Middle East cost 80 shillings, well out of reach for nearly everybody. The Teutonic knights had bowls of the stuff sitting on their tables in the refectory.

The church is a lovely building. It has been substantially repaired after being almost completely demolished in 1945 and was only reopened last year. The door into the church is the only door in the whole castle which is the original door from medieval times.  The floors are tiled, the walls have some faded paintings on them. Originally the walls were completely covered in paintings and the ceiling was painted blue with silver stars. The altar has a statue of Mary flanked by St. Barbara, a local saint of great importance and St. James with a shell in his hat. 

After the tour, I wandered around by myself, went up the stairs to the top of the tower from where I could see over the inside of the castle and also far into the distance ...

found a bullet hole on the outside of a window ...

photographed more steps ...

and had another selfie episode.

I spotted St. George or his angelic friends slaughtering at least three dragons.

Outside, I saw the statue of Madonna and Child in the church wall. It was constructed in 1340 and at eight metres tall, it was the largest statue in medieval Europe. It was coated with gold and coloured glass mosaic. The Madonna was smashed to pieces in the destruction in 1945 and has only just been reconstructed.

After all that history and culture, I was absolutely exhausted and quite glad that there are only another 69 Teutonic castles to look at.