Knights of Teutonic Order

Visitors of north-eastern Poland, formerly inhabited by warlike tribes Prussians, can see plenty of impressive castles in the Gothic style or the picturesque ruins. The power of its walls must force them to thinking over their dark secrets and fascinating history of this land who has witnessed the rise and the collapse of the Teutonic Order.

Full name of the order is: Order of the Hospital of St. Mary of the German House in Jerusalem (Latin: Ordo domus fratrum Sanctae Mariae hospitalis Theutonicorum in Jerusalem). In Poland, because of their emblem: a black cross on a white background, they were called shortly and simply “Cross-men”. For their lawlesness, looting and slaughter of innocent people Teutonic knights are till now seen in very negative way here.

The Teutonic Order was founded in Acre during the Third Crusade for the care of the wounded crusaders. The official date of creation is the year 1191, when pope Clement III officially endorsed its existence. As soon as the Order got huge properties around the city, the number of its members begun to grow rapidly. In subsequent years, especially in the time of the Grand Master Herman von Salza (on the picure), its ambitions have gone far beyond the scope of hospital care. The Order wanted to gain such economic and political position as Templars and von Salza even dreamed of creating a powerful and independent monastic state. And for this purpose it was necessary to find a suitable place in Europe. First, in the early thirteenth century, the Order tried to settle down in Transylvania, where he had been invited by Hungarian king Andrew II to defend the country against the invaders. But when lands given them in the lease were turned by the Order as a fief of the Pope, a wise king expelled Teutons in 1225.

Yearning for Prussia

And then, in 1226, they got another invitation – this time it was Konrad, Polish duke of Mazovia, whose northern lands were continually overrun by the Prussians, who lived in areas between lower Vistula and lower Niemen (in today’s Poland it is known as Warmia and Masuria). They were warlike Baltic tribes, culturally and linguistically related to Lithuanians and Latvians.


 Pruissian tribes in the 13th century

Since neither Polish princes could deal with them, nor Cistercians in their mission of christianising, seemed that the Order was perfect to help them in this case (unhappily prince Konrad didn’t ask Hungarian king for advice). The purpose was a christianization of Prussia (but practically also the conquest), so this project gained approval of the Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX. They allowed Teutons to turn the conquered Prussian areas into its own state, which was supposed to become a part of the Roman Empire and at the same time a fief of the duke of Mazovia. In reality, these plans were in contrary to the intentions of the cheated duke. On the picture: Prussian warriors.

The first representatives of the Order – and that were seven knights, led by Herman von Balka – appeared on the Polish territory in 1230. Having received from Konrad the lease of the Earth in Chelmno, Teutons founded there their first fortified settlement, which in 1233 got the city rights and the name Toruń (Thorun).

Teuton castle in Torun

Once situated in Toruń, Teutonic Knights began the conquest of Prussia. Their method was based on the liquidation of the enemy scattered nests of resistance, the immediate construction of fortifications on the acquired lands and consolidating power by terror. With this tactic it was quickly founded well organized network of castles and fortresses with agriculture and forestry estates around, directly managed by the knights and inhabited by peasants from Mazovia, Czech and Germany.Prussians managed defending themselves bravely and the period of the conquest of their lands continued until 1283, after which those tribes, slaughtered by Teutons, ceased to exist.


 Knights of Teutonic Order

Voracious religious state, however, did not intend to stop its invasions and turned their army against Lithuania (in the east) and … Poland, what had far-reaching political consequences for both countries – very undesirable for the Order state. Pagan Lithuania gave the Order a perfect excuse to share Christianise there and in reality – for expanding frontiers of the Teuton state. Aware of this danger Lithuania decided to receive baptism from hands of the Poles and to create the Polish-Lithuanian union, this took place in 1385 in Krewa. (As a result the pagan ruler of Lithuania, Jagiello, married Polish queen Jadwiga Andegawenska, taking the name Wladyslaw. He started later a new Polish royal dynasty.) This Lithuanian move deprived the convent of the formal right to continue conquering Lithuania and expansion to the east.

                      state of the Teutonic Order in the years 1260 – 1410

 Conflicts with the Polish

Expansionary policy against Poland led to numerous armed conflicts. When asked in 1308 by king Wladyslaw Lokietek (Ladislas the Short) for help in defending Danzig against Brandeburgs, Teutonic Knights willingly turned it to – after the slaughter of the townspeople – unlawfully seizing of Danzig Pomerania (it cut Poland off the Baltic sea). In 1309 Teutonic fortress Malbork, which was situated there, became the seat of the Great Master.

 Malbork Castle, view from the beginning of the 20th century

In 1327, the Order sacked Kujawy and Wielkopolska, murdering women and children; in 1342 its forces reached up to Poznan. No peace treaties were able to force Teutons (which always got support from rulers of Western Europe) to return occupied lands, what eventually led in 1409 to the outbreak of war. This war finally broke political and economic power of the Order. It was then when the famous Battle of Grunwald took place (July 14, 1410).  

The battle of Grunwald, Jan Matejko

The battle of Grunwald in the movie The knights of the Teuton Order (1960)

Polish-Lithuanian army, led by Wladyslaw Jagiello, defeated Teutonic Knights (their Great Master Ulrich von Jungingen was killed during the battle), but the final collapse of the Order was still far away. In the years 1414-1421 and 1431-1435 another wars took place – as a result of the latter Prussia was incorporated into Poland. But Order didn’t give up easily. Its attempts to recover the sovereignty led to a new Polish-Teutonic war in years 1519-1521. Another defeat forced the Grand Master Albert of Hohenzollern to convert into Lutheranism, transforming the religious state into a secular duchy and paying a homage to Polish king Zygmunt Stary in 1525.


You should know that since 1327 in Livonia (Inflanty, now Latvia and Estonia) was operating Teutonic Order faction, based on Knights of the Sword, who enjoyed certain autonomy. The alliance with Russia in 1554 led to Polish intervention and consequently in the years 1558-1570 the Lithuanian-Russian war. As a result of these events also Livonian religious state was secularised, the southern part became secular Duchy of Courland and Semigallia as a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was headed by the last Grand Master Gotthard Kettler, who founded his own dynasty there. The rest of the lands of the Order was incorporated into a common domain of the Poland and Lithuania, some part went to Denmark.

Modern times

Varying fortunes took place subsequent Order of the Hospital of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Interestingly, unlike Templars, it had never been officially dissolutioned. After the homage and secularization some religious activities were continued by some Order houses, primarily in the Reich. In rudimentary form it still exists today, having its headquarter in Vienna. It operates in Austria, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Slovenia and Moravia, engaged in pastoral, educational and charity works. There is also Teutonic Order Baliwat Utrecht in the Netherlands. Baliwat Utrecht separated from Teutonic Order in 1580 after the secularization of the Order in Prussia. Since 1637 is independent from the pope and its members are the only followers of Calvinism. Photo: Headquarter in Vienna.

 Black legend

Teutonic Order is seen by average Pole in a very negative way. The black legend of it was created in the highly popular nineteenth-century novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz “Knights of the Teutonic Order”. Crusaders are shown there as the Polish population ruthless murderer, not hesitating to torture an innocent daughter of his greater enemy, which is additionally blinded and mutilated. But keep in mind that the book, whose climax is a battle of Tannenberg, was written to lift Polish hearts during the massive Germanization during the partitions. The novel was filmed in 1960, till now beating the record of popularity in movie theaters. 

 “Knights of the Teutonic Order”, Aleksander Ford, 1960

Negative stereotype of Teutons has survived until today. The best evidence are controversies surrounding the project of reconstruction of the statue of Herman von Balka in Elbląg, while he was the founder of the city. But despite the crime, fraud and folly there are also positives connected with the Teutonic Order. Locations of cities according to modern German principles became the model for many newly constructed Polish cities such as Warsaw. And the influx of western knights to fight the pagans opened Poland to the knightly culture of Western Europe.

Tourist attractions

Existing today Teutonic castles or still impressive remains are a great tourist attraction in north-eastern Poland. They were constructed of brick (then and stone) in Gothic style, combining monastery and fortress, what makes them very unique in Europe. They are built on the small hills, often near rivers and lakes, usually on the plan of a quadrangle. The biggest Polish, and also European, medieval stronghold is a castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork – fortification virtually not to gain (not even for king Jagiello besieging it after the battle of Grunwald). Other important strongholds are Teutonic castles in Gniew, Kwidzyn, Golub-Dobrzyń, Bytów, Frombork, Lidzbark Warmiński, Paslek, Morag, Działdowo, Nidzica, Szczytno, Kętrzyn, Barciany, and Wegorzewo.

The castle in Kwidzyń


The castle in Kętrzyn / fot.  

Today, many of them function not only as museums but also as a seat of modern hotels and knight’a brotherhoods. In summer there are held various historical events, shows like “light and sound”, tournaments, and in Malbork – reconstruction of the siege. Many castles are connected with interesting legends, and sometimes frightening spirits of dead Teutonic Knights can apper at midnight.

Masuria Middleages Festival 2010 – a tournament of knights in the castle in Ryn / fot.  

The most important outdoor event is the annual reconstruction of the Battle of Grunwald.

See also:

 Renata Głuszek

 Foto. Renata Głuszek, Wikipedia,

2 thoughts on “Knights of Teutonic Order

  1. Hi. I have been researching my family history and it shows that The name of my father, Thorn, originated in Turon during the time of the Tuetons.
    I wonder then, is there records of the individual knights of Tueton?
    The first Ancestor born in Torun was Otto and his son Wradislauw.
    They adopted the name Thorn when they moved (escaped) to Scotland. Perhaps you can advise me of my next move?
    One day i hope to visit this beautiful country and explore further.
    Until then, yours faithfully Stephen

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