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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 province. 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 Elbing. 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 castle. 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 world. 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.