They built them for decades. They were a symbol of their size and power, but also a place where they could gather in large numbers. Medieval castles built by the Teutonic Knights in Pomorskie have survived to this day. Following the Trail of Gothic Castles is a unique opportunity to meet the history and tradition of hundreds of years.
Although the largest Gothic castle is the most famous one in Malbork, today we look into the Gniew Castle. Jarosław Struczynski, the castellan of Gniew, lieutenant of the Hussar banner of the Good Lord Mieczysław Struk, Marshal of the Pomorskie Voivodeship, artistic director of the Gniew Castle, organizer of battle and historical performances tells his story. He has been honoured with many prestigious awards and distinctions for his activities.
Pomorskie.travel: Gothic castles in Pomorskie are a reminder of the Middle Ages, when the Teutonic Order reigned in Pomorskie and Warmia and Mazury. Although it was over 700 years ago, we can still find their traces in the region, and quite a few. We can recommend the Gothic Castle Trail to the Tourists. How many Gothic castles do we have in Pomorskie? Where are they located?
Jarosław Struczynski: The first property of the Teutonic Order in Pomorskie was the Gniew land, which they acquired in 1276 by the granting of Sambor II, the Lubiszewsko-Tczew prince. Granting was confirmed by his successor Msciwoj II, after an agreement with the Teutonic Order in Milicz in Silesia, concluded in 1283. After taking over Gdansk in 1308, the Order created a new organizational structure in Pomorskie, establishing numerous commanders and subordinate administrative units, such as prosecutors and headquarters.
It was connected with the construction of commander’s castles being the seat of the convent with commander at the head. Most often, the location of the castle was associated with the location of the city under Chelmno or Magdeburg law. If we take into account the present area of the Pomorskie Voivodeship, the capital’s castle in Malbork remains the largest castle, which construction began in the 1870s. After the capital of the Order was moved from Venice to Malbork in 1308, the expansion of Malbork took over 100 years, which became the largest fortified building in Europe built of brick. One of the oldest is the castle in Dzierzgon, which ruins have been uncovered in recent years.
Chronologically, another castle built by the order is the commander’s castle in Gniew, the largest fortress of the Order on the left bank of the Vistula, allowing to control the Vistula and land route from the Kingdom of Poland to the port of Gdansk and Elblag. An important role was played by many younger castles in Gdansk, Bytow, Czluchow, Lebork, Stara Kiszewa, Puck, Grabiny, of which only the Bytow Castle survived in good condition, and in large part the Castle in Sztum, the summer residence of the great masters, built in the mid-fourteenth century.
Most of these buildings were demolished in whole or in part after the first partition of Poland by the Prussian government, which treated it as a source of valuable building material. Only the era of Romanticism and its interest in the Middle Ages stopped this process that probably would not spare even Malbork. Only important public functions saved these facilities, such as locating a heavy prison for recidivists in Gniew in the mid-nineteenth century.
Pomorskie.travel: Although Gothic castles are associated primarily with the Teutonic Knights, not all buildings of this type were built by this order …
Jarosław Struczynski: Pomorskie region, before the arrival of the Teutonic Nights, was the area of operation of the Order of St. John, which founded their commandery in Lubiszewo, near Tczew, and the castle, later bought by the Teutonic Knights, built in Skarszewy. It is also worth mentioning the only seat of the knighthood of Calatrava in Spain in the village near Tymawa. Knights from the Iberian Peninsula came here in 1226, two years before the Teutonic mission in Chelmno.
The trace of them disappeared when the Teutonic Knights arrived. In the Pomorskie landscape you can also find fortified seats of bishops. A beautiful example of the episcopal castle can be found in Kwidzyn. Connected with the cathedral of the Pomezanian bishop, it is an example of the unusual architecture of Pomorskie Gothic brick.
Pomorskie.travel: Why Gothic is associated mainly with castles? How long did the construction of such castle take? How dangerous was this task? Who built such castles?
Jarosław Struczynski: Gothic in Pomorskie is not only the castles. There are dozens of great religious temples and diocesan clergy. Gothic is also a preserved medieval urban layouts, an excellent example of which is the Old Town of Gniew, located in 1297, with a clear layout of medieval streets, burgher houses, St. Nicholas’ Church and largely preserved city walls.
However, castles, especially the commander’s castles, with their cubic capacity and location, which are a symbolic highlight of the order’s power, still delight with their view both residents and their guests. It is also worth refuting several myths built around the process of building Teutonic castles, which in some stories was similar to the construction by thousands of slaves of the Egyptian pyramids. The construction of the castle was based on principles known to us today.
The investor was the order represented by the commander, who concluded a contract for the performance of specific construction works with specialized craft workshops, usually from large Prussian cities. Simple earthworks and transport were carried out by the subjects of the order as part of the feudal system. The architectural design showed the internal structure of the building defined by the religious rule and other functions, mainly defensive and storage.
The convent’s main room was located on the first floor: a church, a chapter house, a refectory, dormitories, and sometimes infirmary. The construction process was usually divided into several stages. The first assumed the construction of perimeter walls and the main tower as well as buildings constituting basements and the ground floor of the main wings. As soon as the convent was secured, as the revenues were raised, construction works were continued and could last up to thirty-fifty years. Malbork itself has been expanded for over 100 years.
Pomorskie.travel: The castle in Gniew is your place of work, but also a huge history of the Middle Ages …
Jarosław Struczynski: I was very lucky to be born in Gniew, in the shadow of the ruins of the Gniew stronghold. I spent all my childhood and youth in the outer bailey of the southern castle, in the allotments used by my parents. For as long as I can remember, the castle ruins have always inspired me. In my childhood I made the decision that when I grow up I will rebuild the castle in Gniew. God’s providence has given me such an opportunity. In the 1990s, I initiated the rebuilding and revitalization of the castle, managing the Municipal and Community Centre, using public works organized by the Gniew local government.
Approximately 2,500 unemployed residents of the Gniew commune raised the Castle from ruins in five years, making it one of the main centres in Poland for popularizing history and propagating tradition. This was a huge challenge, considering that the Castle remained in ruins after years of fire in 1921, which completely destroyed its three wings. For centuries, the Castle has retained its shape, and, which is also very important, the spatial layout of the entire Castle Hill is clear.
The defensive walls and partial development of the eastern inter-wall have survived almost completely. The former two gothic outbuildings were absorbed by the so-called Marysienka Palace, built in the 17th century, whose construction is attributed to the foreman of Gniew, King Jan III Sobieski. Part of the northern ward is a barracks building built in the 1930s for the 2nd battalion of sappers stationed in 1920 in Gniew, the 65th infantry regiment in Starogard. Since 2010, the Castle has been in the hands of the Polmlek group, a worthy patron of culture and national heritage.
The next stage of the Castle’s revitalization is underway, as part of the Castle and neighbouring facilities have become a great and comfortable hotel and conference facility. Consecrated again in 1997, the castle chapel makes it possible to conduct the wedding ceremony followed by a reception in the castle’s royal, covered courtyard. Starting from May 2019, professional recreational facilities will be launched, located on the North Intercity and basements of the Northern Wing. Guests of the castle will be able to use swimming pools, saunas, jacuzzi and wellness rooms. Thus, the former monastery of the Teutonic Order is ready to welcome and relax weary pilgrims.
Pomorskie.travel: What is the Hussar Banner of the Marshal of the Pomorskie Voivodeship?
Jarosław Struczynski: The Hussar Banner of the Marshal of the Pomorskie Voivodeship is one of the oldest and most effective groups of historical reconstruction recreating the 17th-century cavalry in Poland. It was created in 2004 by Jan Kozlowski, who, having commanded the lieutenant of Gniew, ordered to form a banner, in which today, under the command of Mr. Mieczysław Struk, there are 28 hussars and 10 ladies of the Hussar banner who support their fathers and husbands. The Hussar banner became famous for its participation in the largest seventeenth-century battle productions in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
As the first in modern history it performed a series of horse performances entitled Hussars boasting Polish weapons at the Museum of the Royal Armory in Leeds, Great Britain, which turned out to be the hit of the 2017 season. The banner also participated in the implementation of several programs and historical films promoting the history of Poland in the world.
Pomorskie.travel: Gniew Castle offers unique encounters with history. The hussars’ show is one of the attractions. What is it about?
Jarosław Struczynski: The constant presence of the lieutenant and governor’s posts in the Castle guarantees repetitive and regular meetings with hussars. They have the character of outdoor shows, carried out in the tournament arena located in the southern bailey. The arena is equipped with several hundred permanent, roofed places for the public as well as professional sound and lighting. The main recipients of the performances are young Poles coming to the Castle as part of educational and recreational expeditions, also benefiting from classes in ancient crafts workshops, practicing in a fencing school, integrating during historical fitness games or participating in the multimedia spectacle “Holidays with Ghosts”. Popularizing the history of the Polish hussar certainly has a mission dimension, thanks to which the pride of its own history increases in Poles.
The tournament arena also hosts medieval “Knights of Gniew” clashing in horse knights’ duels in full plate armor using copies. The fame of the Gniew arena has spread all over the world, and the most famous knights from three continents are standing in line to compete in the International Knight’s Tournament of King Jan III, who will meet this year on June 29-30. Knights of Gniew are also the winners of the most prestigious tournaments in England, France, Norway, Canada and the USA.
Lovers of military and 17th-century customs will meet in Gniew this year on August 9-11 during the next edition of the VIVAT VASA project! Battle of Gniew from 1626. The Gniew Hussar Tournament will be played, the battle will be staged with the participation of hussars, armoured nights as well as hundreds of foot soldiers from the regiments of the national and foreign authorities. Poles and Swedes will face each other in the battle, as in the memorable year of 1626. Old craftsmen will fill the Old Town, including blacksmiths and armorers locally, standing for the Show of Blacksmith’s and remembrance of Marcin “Gas” Manikowski, the great blacksmith and saber maker who died last year.
The experience of Gniew reconstructions also translates into a wide range of historical attractions for organizers of conferences, jubilee meetings or themed tours. By participating in the supper you can meet the Teutonic Knights, Polish nobility or guards of the Prussian prison. They present the most interesting episodes from the history of the Castle and its inhabitants in a very humorous way. You can admire the highest quality replicas of costumes and weaponry, get to know the customs, while tasting the dry works of the castle kitchen, watch live the clashes of pedestrian and horse knights or the saber duels of feisty noblemen.
Para historic games are a great opportunity to check the fitness of the spirit and body for guests who want to experience extreme integration activities in the historical spirit. Lovers of Gregorian chants can meet during the praying the Gregorian choir „Schola Cantorum Gymevensis”, already known throughout Europe.
On holiday weekends, guests can participate in cyclic Journeys to the Past, using a Cannon Salvo to the Angel of the Lord or admiring the hussars or heavy-armed medieval knights in duel crushing copies.
Those whose love for cavalry and the wealth of their wallets incline to serve in the hussars can come to the monthly Hussar War Military Exercises. After a year-long, effort-intensive novitiate, you can expect to receive the register of the Hussar banner and begin the honorable service of the Brightest Republic of Poland.