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The Knights of the Black Cross
Professor Roland Rotherham
The legends of the world have been always been influenced by great
moments in history. There have been many such defining moments that have
crafted stories that we still enjoy today, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire,
the campaigns of Charlemagne and the conquests of Alexander the Great.
However, there was one series of events that would have a more lasting
effect on our history than possibly any other. “The Crusades”.
I want you to imagine that you have lived all your life in the same small village
or town without ever leaving it, not only that but your family has always lived
there, never moving from its borders for generations. This is the only world
you know. You will be born there, live there, raise your family there and die
there without ever knowing anything else.
There is no media; the world of communicated news does not exist. No
radios, television, magazines or newspapers. All you know of the lands
outside of your own is that which you hear from travellers returning from far
lands and telling impossible stories that thrill all who hear them.
Then and almost without warning, the ordinary people, not the great trained
armies of the past but ordinary citizens, were called to arms by the lords of the
estates they lived and worked on, they were sent to the far ends of the then
known world and all of a sudden were faced with the most incredible things.
Sights, sounds, smells and all manner of wonders they saw. People with
strange coloured skins, new foods and also, and probably more importantly,
new religions. What the ordinary man saw on these great adventures would
change the way they thought forever.
In the middle of this theatre there arose new bands of knighthood, men who
formed brotherhoods in the Holy Land and who sought out the company of
others to join their ranks. The oldest of these were the Knights Hospitaller,
they were soon followed by the best known of these brotherhoods, the
Knights Templar and then, in 1190, a group of merchants from Bremen and
Lubeck in Germany, paid for a hospital tent to be set up before the city of
Acre, there to tend the wounded of the many German knights and men-atarms serving in its siege.
From these beginnings grew the “Servants of Saint Mary of The German
House”, soon to become known as “The Teutonic Knights”. Perhaps one of
the most controversial of the combined orders of “The Knights of Christ” and
certainly the order that would have a lasting effect on Europe.
In 1197 the order where given the “Rule of the Templars” to follow and Henry
Walpoto was elected their first master. By 1220 the order had 12 houses the
Holy Land, Greece, Italy and Germany under the first “Hoch Meister” or High
Master, Herman von Salza. Even though the order was to receive many gifts
of land, in the Holy Land all the best land and castles were already in the
possession of The Templars and Hospitallers and so there, at least, they were
always the ‘poor cousins’ to the other orders.
In Europe however, it was a different story. Although the order never
achieved great power in Palestine this soon changed in the area of Eastern
Europe. In 1210, King Andrew of Hungary asked for help because bands of a
tribe called the “Kumans” from the east were invading his lands in
Transylvania, the king offered the order the lands of “Burzenland” if they
would help. This the order did and thus they launched their own crusade
against the pagan invaders. When the order started to settle in Burzenland
with their people however, the king became anxious and as the order was not
powerful enough to hold their own lands just yet they had to retire but it made
them cast their eyes to Eastern Europe and the prizes there. They vowed to
return and they did!
In Prussia, the land of the pagan “Prusiskai”, the local bishop had been trying
to convert the pagans to Christianity but the heathen tribesmen were causing
trouble for him. Obtaining the backing of the Pope and the German Emperor,
the Hoch Meister launched a crusade to assist the bishop. This worked to
their advantage as they had just been honoured by the Emperor by making
them the guard of honour at the Holy Sepulchre when he was crowned King
of Jerusalem in 1229.
The order was given the land south of Danzig, (Gdansk), known as the Kulm
province. Here the order had a good base for operations for a Prussian
crusade. The Hoch Meister built a fortress at Vogelsang on the Elbe and from
their action went the orders way and they conquered the rest of the Kulm
The order there only numbered 20 knights and 200 sergeants of the order but
they fought with such ferocity they soon gained a reputation for taking no
prisoners and killed every man, woman and child who remained pagan. They
soon built other castles as their numbers grew at Marienwerder, Thorn and
By the late 13th century, it had become obvious that the order would have no
great foothold in Palestine and their own headquarters was in Venice. So it
was that the Teutonic Knights concentrated more and more on Eastern
Europe and in 1309 they took possession of the great castle of Marienburg,
now Malbork, and made it the centre for the order. This vast fortress was to
remain their headquarters from that time on.
The fortress of Marienburg Castle is stunning in its beauty. It sits on the
banks of the river Nogat and dominates the entire region. Marienburg remains
the largest brick-built castle in Europe and even though it was very badly
damaged during the 2nd World War, it was lovingly restored and rebuilt to its
former glory and stands today as it would have done during the time of the
Teutonic Knights.
The construction on the castle began in about 1275 when the central
monastery building was built, this later became the Higher Castle, and this
contained the main church building and the burial chamber of the Grand
Masters as well as the chapter room and treasury as well as other sectors of
the castle. This main block was then surrounded by terraced walls and a
superb series of fortifications. The main remains its very characteristic fortified
tower or “Keep”; this was the last line of defence in case the castle was ever
under siege.
During the 14th century the area we now call the “Middle Castle” was built
were there once stood the old approach to the castle. This houses the
magnificent palace building where the Hoch Meister of Grand Master lived
with his retinue of staff and here he would entertain on a lavish scale. Near
the palace were also lodgings for guests as well as the offices for the order.
In the “Grand Refectory” great banquets would be held to dine important
guests and visitors to the orders headquarters. The “Lower Castle” was then
constructed and this housed another chapel, the all-important armoury and
stables. From its completion until the order retreated in the 15th century it
would remain not only its centre of operations but also, and this worth
remembering, it was a trading centre, a monastery, and an important training
base for the knights and their brothers-in-arms. The size of this castle and the
magnificent workmanship that decorates it has to be seen to be believed, it is
one of the wonders of the medieval world.
To the North of Marienburg Castle stands the sea-port of Danzig, (Gdansk),
this was a vital port for the order as it had easy access to a thriving harbour
from where the order could anchor their galleys and sail out to engage any
invaders as well as welcoming trading vessels. Even as far back as the 2 nd
century the bay of Gdansk was written about as being a great source of
amber and traded with Rome in this special commodity. The city stands on
the mouth of the river Vistula. It was inhabited by people called the
“Cassubians” or Kashubs. In 1308 this area of Pomerania was taken by the
Teutonic Knights and as they entered the city they slew all who stood in their
way, and many who were bystanders, they showed no mercy in their
conquest and soon gained the city as their main port.
The city today stands much as it did during the time of the order, its beautiful
“Old Town” being the site of many of the city’s ancient buildings. The “Upland
Gate” was built by Hans Kramer in 1574 and stands as a magnificent fortified
portal of defence, its great gateway is decorated by the great stonemason and
designer, the Dutchman, Willem van den Blocke who was living in the
Motlawa area.
If you approached Gdansk by land and after you passed under the Upland
Gate you would be faced by the Gate-front and after passing here you would
approach the “Torture Tower” and “Prison Tower”. These buildings give you a
clue to their use in their names and have been used in this way right up to the
2nd World War, today they stand as a grim reminder of their former tasks but
you cannot fail to be impressed by their size and design.
The city houses many fabulous buildings including the Fraternity of Saint
George, the Great Armoury and the truly splendid “Arthus Court” dedicated to
King Arthur and his ideals of chivalry.
One of the best ways to soak up the atmosphere of this truly lovely city is to
take a cruise on the river Nogat through the area at the rear of the Old Town
buildings by Drakaar, (In these modern times they have motors so you don’t
have to row)!
The National Museum is a building of great interest as it stands on the site of
the original Teutonic Order castle. It stands in Torunska Street and houses
many national treasures. The refectory of the old building, which was once a
convent, stands on magnificent pillars which once formed part of the old
To the south of Gdansk and Marienburg, (Malbork), lies the battlefield of
Tannenburg, (Grunwald), it was here in 1410 that the Teutonic Knights were
delivered a crushing blow by Eastern European troops from which they would
never recover. The battle that ensued was one of the largest ever recorded in
medieval Europe and its repercussions would be felt throughout the Christian
The battle actually involved three armies. The forces of the Kingdom of
Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and that of the Teutonic Order.
By the time of the battle the Teutonic Order had been in a period of relative
‘Peace’ and as such its numbers had declined, this invariably happens when
an army has little to do. In 1410 its military brethren had fallen to 1,600 but
please remember there were still brothers in arms and men at arms with
which the ranks were swelled.
King Jagiello had mobilised a force of some 10,000 which was added to as
others joined the eastern coalition. The Hochmeister decided to act at once
rather than wait for support from the “Livonian Brotherhood” and although
outnumbered decided to engage in battle.
The Hochmeister decided to adopt a defensive position and wait for the
forces under Jagiello to attack him. This was due to the fact that many
portions of the allied army had positioned themselves in the flanks of the field
of Tannenburg where they had cover from woods and hills; this meant that the
order was denied the opportunity to use a mounted charge against its
enemies, something they excelled at.
As the allies attacked many were put to flight be the accuracy of the orders
archers and crossbowmen who were deadly accurate with their flights and
actually succeeded in routing the Lithuanian wing of the allied army. As the
order chased after them however they were checked by a large force of
Cossacks and for some time the battle remained at ‘stalemate’.
Shortly after, the Hochmeister saw a chance to engage with Jagiello and
personally led a squadron of his own senior knights and mounted bodyguard
to charge in a wedge formation to try and break the ranks of Jagiellos forces
and mount a personal attack on the king himself. No-one could question the
bravery of this desperate charge although its logistics may cause some doubt
to the modern mind.
The squadrons of the order must have looked magnificent as rode into action
with both man and horse clad in the distinctive and inspiring robes of the
order, white and bearing a large black cross, the senior member’s crosses
being counter-charged with the gold eagle of the German Emperor. The
orders banners following troop and the horse’s harnesses clattering as they
moved forward would have delighted any cavalryman and put fear into the
enemy infantry.
Remember, the order had received its operating order from the Templars and
with this the order that you can retreat if outnumbered by more than three to
one, that or less ATTACK! However, the Hochmiesters charge was to no
avail, he soon found his force surrounded by a large number of allied horse
and while still trying to pierce their ranks he and his senior knights were cut
down while bravely fighting to the last man. The Hochmeister himself falling
with a lance through his throat that had found its way under the defences of
his helmet.
The order broke at the news and many of the “Guest” soldiers fled the field
with those of the order fighting to try and make their way of the field with some
order. Many were killed outright by the barbarous Cossacks and many more
were captured and either beheaded or tortured to death by their capturers.
The order had suffered a defeat it had never expected. The castle at
Marienburg was not to be taken by force however and it remained held by the
order until they retreated back to the German heart-land. This was not the last
time the order would see action though. They remained a part of the army of
the Emperor and in 1562 Charles V encountered a force of 30,000 Russiand
of the army of Ivan the Terrible and with a force of only 2,000 men the
Teutonic Knights stopped them in their tracks at the battle of Weissenstein.
The glory days however had gone, the “Ordensland” no longer existed and its
reason for existence had gone. No more would the battlefields of Europe
resound to their galloping hooves and fluttering white mantles, the gigantic
horned helmets now only lingered on in chapels and castle walls. But the
order had written a page into history that although stained richly in blood had
also scribed legends and a reputation for ferocity in battle that none would
equal. For all of time readers of stories would thrill to the stories of the
Teutonic Knights.