Castles and Church history. Two of my favorite things.
Poland, being both a medieval powerhouse and a predominantly Catholic country, has plenty of both. From saintly royals to illicit pilgrimages to a native-born Pope, Poland’s ties to the Church have historically been very strong, and continue to be right down to this day.
One of my favorite stories about Poland and the Church is how some Polish nobles weaseled their way out of fighting in the Crusades by claiming there was no beer in the Holy Land, so they simply couldn’t go. Believe it or not, it worked.
Speaking of Poland and the Crusades: The Teutonic Knights.
The Templars weren’t the only ones who took the call to be the Church Militant literally. The Teutonic Knights followed the same path. The difference is that the Templars’ main legacy is mystery and storytelling, whereas the Teutonics left a more tangible mark.
The Teutonic Knights were founded during the Crusades, when both soldiers and nurses were in high demand. These particular soldiers were all German by birth, and all took monastic vows. In other words, the Teutonic Knights led a religious life, just like any other order of monks. However, the knights made an additional vow, which most monks don’t: to (literally) fight enemies of the Church and Her faith. When the Crusades came to an end, the knights returned to Europe, turned their attention away from the Muslims of the Middle East, and executed their vows upon the pagans of the north.
Being military men, the knights needed strongholds. Wherever they went, they would do battle, conquer, and build castles in which the knights lived in common and performed their other monastic duties. All over eastern Europe, castles stand as a testament to the wealth and breadth of the Teutonic order.
Problems began to arise in the Middle Ages. Over time, the Teutonic Knights became richer and richer, and, consequently, more powerful. It didn’t help matters that they were comprised entirely of Germans and mainly of men from the upper classes (the knights were noblemen and clergy, and the clergy were just one step down on the caste order from nobles). The number of wealthy younger sons who joined the order, in addition to the holdings from the castles they built for themselves, made the Teutonic Knights a force to be reckoned with in Europe for many years. Once their military usefulness died out, their efforts became monetary. And, really, we all know how much people like bankers.
The great fall of the Teutonic Knights came in 1466 at the end of the Thirteen Years’ War, which effectively ended the rule of the Teutonic Knights in Poland by incorporating their lands and their people into the Kingdom of Poland under King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk. This war ended in Toruń with the signing of the Second Treaty of Toruń. The war had also, essentially, started in Toruń.
Just before the war, when tensions were high, the burgher class of Toruń – wealthy people who weren’t landed gentry or nobility – revolted against the rulers. That is, the Teutonic Knights. Things came to a head, and the burghers ended in almost completely destroying the castle that the Knights lived in. This, I think, is a testament to how un-militant the Knights had become: a bunch of angry merchants were able to breach the castle.
The ruins of the Teutonic castle, or the Ruiny Zamku Krzyżackiego (roo-in-ee zahm-koo k-zhizh-ah-skee-eh-go), still stand in Toruń, overlooking the Wisła River. Interestingly, the best preserved part of the castle is the latrine tower, and it’s famed for its largely undamaged façade. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Given the state of plumbing and sanitation in those days, I wouldn’t have touched that tower with a ten-foot pole, even if I were an angry, over-taxed burgher.
Visitors can explore the ruins of the Teutonic Castle in Toruń, which includes entry to the ruins, entry to the Latrine Tower (which has since been cleaned, and all traces of latrines removed), and an exhibition of the weapons and tactics that the Teutonic Knights would have used in battle.
The castle is also the perfect backdrop for medieval jousting tournaments, which one may happen across on a sunny day in Toruń.
Visiting the Ruiny Zamku Krzyżackiego:
Getting there: The address for the castle is ul. Przedzamcze 3, Toruń. It’s well within walking distance of the main rynek – just follow the river!
Admission: Entry is 8 PLN for an adult or 5 PLN for a concession. Families can get a special rate of 16 PLN.
- From March to October: 10 AM to 6 PM daily
- From November to February: 10 AM to 4 PM daily
Website: You can visit the Ruiny Zamku Krzyżackiego website here.