The castle of Balga

Translation : Andrew Zolnai
No pictures available

Fédération de Russie, district fédéral du Nord-Ouest, Oblast de Kaliningrad

Russian Federation, North-Western Federal District, Kaliningrad Oblast, about 60 km south-west of the city of Kaliningrad and about 70 km north-east of the Polish city of Elbląg, city of Mamonovo.

Originally, Balga, then called Honeda, was occupied by the Prussian tribe of the Warmians(1) who established a gród(2) on a small hill bordered by the Vistula Lagoon(3).

Model of the Castle of Balga
Model of the Castle of Balga
Source : wikimapia.org

In 1237, the Margrave of Meissen, Henry III of Wettin(4), took part in an expedition of the Teutonic Order against the Prussian tribes and besieged the place from the sea side with two ships, but without success.

The following year, in 1238, a troop of Teutonic Knights, led by Grand Marshal Dietrich von Bernheim, succeeded in taking the fort. Immediately, aware of the strategic position of the place, the Order, thanks to major donations from Duke Otto I of Brunswick(5), began the construction of a brick castle on the site of the fort. Balga will be the first castle built by the Order in this region.

At the end of the 1240s, Balga became the capital of a Komtur (Preceptory) whose area of influence extended over a strip of about 450 km to the south-east, as far as the present-day Polish towns of Pisz and Ełk.

Historical view of the castle of Balga - 1684
Historical view of the castle of Balga, in 1684.

In 1249, Heinrich Botel, Grand Marshal of the Order, gathered a large troop in Balga for a major incursion into Prussian territory in the south-east. After having looted many villages in Natangian territory, the Teutonic troops were surprised by a counter-attack by these same Natangians near the small village of Krücken, south of their castle of Kreuzburg. They will suffer a major defeat there. Many knights, including Heinrich Botel, were captured. Among them, Brother Johann, Balga's vice-preceptor, will suffer a fatal fate; he will be beheaded and his head will be exposed at the end of a pike.

Because of its specific location on the banks of the Vistula lagoon, Balga was not conquered during the two Prussian uprisings(6)(7).

In 1254, Balga welcomed the Bohemian king Ottokar II who took part in an expedition of the Teutonic Order to the north-east against the tribes of the Natangans and Sambians. During this expedition, the territory of the present-day city of Kaliningrad was conquered and Königsberg Castle was built. By the time the king arrived, the construction of Balga Castle was completed. From this Teutonic fortress, raids will be organized to conquer Warmia and Natangia.

Its strategic position along the Vistula Lagoon made Balga a place of prime importance for the surveillance of the region and the control of maritime navigation on the Lagoon.

In 1499, Grand Master Friedrich von Sachsen dissolved the preceptory of Balga. After the Prussian Homage(8), Balga was automatically integrated into the Polish Duchy of Prussia in 1525. At that time, the castle became the residence of Georges de Polentz(9), bishop of Samland.

In 1627, during the Thirty Years' War(10), the castle was dismantled by Swedish troops on the orders of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden(11) in order to build the fortress of Pillau (Pilawa, Baltiysk) on the Vistula Peninsula.

The position as preceptor of Balga was often a stepping stone to high positions in the Teutonic Order, so two of his preceptors became Grand Masters of the Order : Winrich von Kniprode (from 1352 to 1382) and Ulrich von Jungingen (from 1407 to 1410).

Notes :

(1)This region, nowadays located on North-east of Poland (also called Borders or Marches in English) was occupied by several Old-Prussian and Baltic Tribes, among them the Pomeranians, Pomesanians, Warmians, Semigalians,... Follow this link on Wikipedia to have a glimpse of this tribes.

(2)A gród is a fortification made of wood and of clay, often a small village or hamlet of some houses surrounded by a boarding, with or without keep or watch tower.

(3)Zalew Wiślany is the lagoon formed by the Vistula River at its mouth. This lagoon is separated from the Baltic Sea by the Peninsula of the Vistula and flows into it via the Cieśnina Piławska (Strait of de Baltiisk) located in the Russian territory of the Oblast of Kaliningrad.

(4)Henri III said "The Illustrious" comes from the powerful house of Wettin who was at the origin of several European royal dynasties, some of which still reign today (Belgium and the United Kingdom). He was the son of the Margrave of Meissen Thierry I the Exile and Jutta of Thuringia. He was born around 1215-1216 in the Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen. He became Margrave of Meissen and Lusatia in 1221, barely 5 or 6 years old, when his father died. In 1247 he also became Margrave of Thuringia and Count Palatine of Saxony. In 1234 he married Constance of Austria, daughter of Duke Leopold VI of Austria. He died on 15 February 1288, at the more than respectable age of 72-73.

(5)Otto or Otto I "the Child" was born around 1204 and died on June 9, 1252 in Lunebourg. He was the first to bear the title of Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg. He received it from the hands of emperor Frederik II in 1235 and kept it until his death in 1252. His family was one of the branches of the powerful Guelph dynasty. He is named Otto "the Child" to distinguish him from his uncle, Emperor Otto IV. He is the son of Prince William of Lüneburg, also known as William of Winchester, and Princess Helen of Denmark, daughter of King Valdemar I of Denmark. In 1225, he allied himself with his cousin, King Valdemar II of Denmark against emperor Frederik II. He took part in the battles of Mölln in 1225 and Bornhöved in 1227, where he was captured and later sent to the fortress of Schwerin. After the death of his jailer Count Henry of Schwerin, he was freed in 1228 thanks to the intercession of King Henry III of England and Pope Gregory IX. Then he married Mathilde of Brandenburg, the daughter of Margrave Albert II of Brandenburg. He was reconciled with emperor Frederik II in 1235 and received from him the fiefdom of the Duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg. In 1239/1240, he took part in several expeditions organized by the Teutonic Order in Prussia.

(6)The first uprising of the Prussian tribes began in 1242 and officially ended in 1249. This insurrection was born following 3 important events: The defeat of the Teutonics at the Battle of Lake Peipus; the Mongol invasion of southern Poland in 1241 and the destruction of large Christian military forces at the Battle of Legnica; and finally, the declaration of war by the Duke of Pomerania Swietopelk II against the Teutonic Order, which supported his brothers in their different dynasties. In its early years, the Teutonic Order suffered important defeats and many strongholds fell into the hands of the Prussians. However, from 1245 onwards, the allied troops of the Prussians and Swietopelk suffered many setbacks and peace was finally achieved at the beginning of 1249, although a few months later the Teutonic Order suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Krücken. Skirmishes between the Teutonics and the Prussian tribes continued until the mid-1250s.

(7)This second insurrection began on 20 September 1260, the day after the defeat of the Teutonic Order against a coalition of Lithuanian and Samogitian tribes during the Battle of Durbe. This defeat of the Order provoked an uprising, which spread rapidly throughout the territory of the Old-Prussian tribes. The various castles of the Order were besieged, and the smallest ones began to fall into the hands of the Old-Prussians. Despite the arrival of numerous reinforcements from the German Empire and all of Europe, it was not until 1265 that the Teutonic Order began to defeat its enemies. It would be a few years before the various chiefs of tribes were defeated and hanged, during the winter of 1271-1272. In 1274, the Order attacked Lidzbark Warmiński, captured the last rebel leader and executed him, thus causing the end of the uprising.

(8)The Prussian Homage is the homage delivered by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order Albert of Brandenburg, on the eve of the signing of the Treaty of Cracow, to the King of Poland Sigismund I, by which he gave up the title of Grand Master of the Order to become Duke of Prussia and thus vassal to the King.

(9)Georges of Polentz came from a former noble family of Saxony. He was born around 1478. He studied church in Bologna and held a position as private secretary at the Roman Curia. He was in contact with the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Albert of Brandenburg, who brought him to Königsberg Castle. In 1519 he was confirmed as Bishop of Samland by the Curia. He adhered to Lutheranism and was one of the ardent defenders of the Reformation in Prussia. After 1525, he became the first Lutheran bishop of Samland.

(10)The Thirty Years' War was a series of armed conflicts that have torn Europe from 1618 to 1648 and was the backdrop of religious problems between Catholics and Protestants.

(11)Gustav II Adolf was King of Sweden from 1611 until his death in 1632. He was born on 9 December 1594 in Stockholm and died on 6 November 1632 at the Battle of Lützen. He was one of the great military geniuses of his time and thanks to his reforms, he transformed Sweden into one of the great European powers of the 17th century.

    


Bibliography
  1. Zamki w Państwie Krzyżackim w Prusach - Kompendium Zamków krzyżackich i Biskupich
    Prof. Christofer Herrmann ; Widawnictwo Artes, 2015
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Translation : Andrew Zolnai
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