The beginnings of the castle in Gniew (Mewe) date back to the early 90s of the 13th century. Earlier there was a Pomeranian stronghold here, which in 1276 passed by the Pomeranian prince Sambor to the Teutonic Order. In 1283, the Teutonic Knights erected a makeshift stronghold, but it was not located on the site of the later castle, but probably on the area of the stronghold called Dybowo. In the same year, the first commander, Dietrich of Spira, was mentioned. In 1290, work began on the construction of a brick castle, which, after completing about 40 years of construction, was, next to the castles in Człuchów and Gdańsk, the most powerful Teutonic stronghold on the left bank of the Vistula.
At the beginning of the third decade of the 15th century, Gniew temporarily served as the residence of the former Grand Master Michael Küchmeister. At that time, the castle complex was rebuilt, bricking up the former entrance gate, building a new one from the east, and enlarging the chapel.
The first warfare affected the castle in Gniew probably during the Polish-Teutonic war in 1410, although the Teutonic garrison probably gave up without a fight at the news of the defeat at Grunwald and death of the commander of Gniew, Sigmund von Ramungen, on the battlefield. Like most other Teutonic strongholds, after the war Gniew returned to the hands of the order. During the Thirteen Years’ War, the castle was besieged at the beginning of military operations in 1454. The Pomeranian knights, with the help of the burghers and peasantry, after a week of fighting led to a fire, as a result of which the Teutonic Knights escaped and the castle was devastated. After a few months Gniew returned to the Teutonic Knights again, although the retreating townspeople set fire to the outer baily’s grounds. Another siege occurred in 1463, when the Polish army under the command of Piotr Dunin spread under the castle. After six months of isolation, the Teutonic crew surrendered, and Gniew remained in the Polish hands until the end of the war.
After signing the Second Peace of Toruń in 1466, the castle became the seat of the Polish eldership. In the 16th century, only temporary repairs were carried out on it (outer walls of the castle, a foregate), and most of the unused rooms fell into neglect. In the 17th century, the castle was destroyed by the Swedes, who twice occupied Gniew. Auspicious times came when the eldership belonged to the later king, Jan Sobieski. Then the so-called hunting lodge next to the main tower and the so-called Palace of Marysieńka were built, both using older, Gothic buildings. After the first partition of Poland, the Prussians placed barracks and then a grain warehouse in the castle. Medieval inter-story divisions and vaults were liquidated. In the nineteenth century, the main tower was demolished and the building was converted into a prison. Fortunately, soon after, in the years 1856-1859, the first renovation works and a series of activities aimed at partial regothisation began, although no importance was given to the faithful reconstruction of the original buildings. In 1921, the castle burned down, and restoration work was only started in 1969.
The castle was situated on a promontory of a hill extended to the east, in a place protected from the south by the Wierzyca River, and from the east by the riverside slopes droping towards the Vistula. On the west side, the town bordered to the castle, connected with its fortifications. Such favorable terrain left the least protected only north side, where the stretching plateau threatened the possibility of the enemy’s close approach.
The upper castle was built of bricks in a Flemish bond with walls based on massive high foundations made of irregular granite boulders. In its final shape it was a regular complex on a square plan with a side length of 49 meters, with four wings separating the inner courtyard, equipped with three corner towers – four-sided, slightly, projected in front of the face of the walls and a huge, octogonal bergfried on the northeast side, 48 meters high. Sloping gable roofs rose above the wings of the castle, while the corner towers were covered with hip roofs. Bergfried was probably crowned by a defensive gallery surrounded by a wall with loop holes, covered with a roof at a later stage. The southern wing, as the most important, was distinguished outside by decorative gables from east and west side, ornamented with blendes. The raw brick façades of the castle received decorations from zendrówka bricks, creating various patterns.
The entrance gate to the upper castle was initially located on the axis of the southern wing and had a high ogival niche for portcullis. It led from the outer bailey to the inner courtyard, which was surrounded by cloisters, brick one in the ground floor, higher timber, supported by huge stone corbels. In the middle of the courtyard there was a well, necessary for the daily functioning of the castle. In the ground floor of the upper castle there were utility rooms (kitchen, pantries, bakery), and below them vaulted cellars. On the first floor of the southern wing, in its eastern part, a chapel covered with a stellar vault was placed. On its west side there was a small chamber, probably intended for the guards and the mechanism operating the portcullis, because below was the gate passage. After the entry was moved to the east wing in the 15th century, this room was incorporated into the extended chapel. The western part of the southern wing was allocated to a large, three-bay representative chamber, once incorrectly identified with the chapter house. The west wing housed a cross vaulted refectory, and the east wing a dormitory or infirmary. The purpose of the chambers in the northern wing is not entirely clear, they could serve as a residence and the commander’s office.
Above the main, first floor, there was still (except for the south wing) a low storehouse – defensive floor, equipped with a defensive porch accessible from a staircase in the southwest turret. Around the entire southern wing it was made in the thickness of the wall and had loop holes on both sides of the wall-walk. In the remaining wings, the defensive gallery ran only at the outer walls, while at the walls from the courtyard sides only shooting positions were created without a defensive walkway.
The main block of the castle was surrounded by outer wall (zwinger) with four corner, four-sided towers. In the south-west part there was a dansker tower (latrine tower) connected to the castle by an upper porch at the height of the main floor. A moat about 15 meters wide adjoined the quadrilateral of the zwinger.
A large fortified outer bailey developed around the upper castle. The main seat of the Teutonic convent was located more or less in its center, which distinguished it from other Teutonic castles. The outer bailey was protected by fortifications with two towers and two gatehouses. One led north, the other led to the port and mill buildings in the south-east. In the western part of the walls, there was also a wicket gate connecting the castle with the town. In the outer baily there were: brewery, malt house, granaries, stables, smithy, coach house and residential houses for service.
In the first half of the 15th century, as mentioned above, the chapel was extended by one bay to the west, at the expense of the room above the original gate. The new entrance was then placed to the east wing. It was preceded by a neck of a foregate extending across the inter-wall (zwinger) up to the bridge over the moat. Probably, the rooms in the eastern and northern wing were also transformed then.
The castle has survived, despite frequent fires and destructions, in a gothic, monumental form, but unfortunately without the main tower – the bergfried, from which only the lower floors remained and with facades pierced by a large number of early modern windows. It is currently in private hands but is open to the public. There is a hotel on the outer baily, there are knights tournaments, summer camps and other events. Unfortunately, the new owner decided to turn the cultural heritage and historical object into a money factory at the expense of its appearance. A landing pad of helicopters appeared on the bailey and the courtyard was covered with a glass roof.
Leksykon zamków w Polsce, red. L.Kajzer, Warszawa 2003.
Strzelecka I., Gniew, Warszawa 1982.
Torbus T., Zamki konwentualne państwa krzyżackiego w Prusach, Gdańsk 2014.