The founders of the castle and the town of Allenstein were representatives of the Warmia chapter. After the division of the Prussian lands into dioceses in 1243, the first bishop of Warmia, Anselm, received the third part of the territory of the diocese, as the bishop’s dominion, where he performed ecclesiastical and secular authority. From this area he was obliged to divide the third part to the chapter, that is, the college of canons advising the bishop and taking care of the cathedral. The process of transferring the territories to the chapter lasted a long time, Anselm’s successor, bishop Henry Fleming gave it the Frombork and Melzak’s komornictwo (kind of county), and it was not until 1346 that bishop Herman from Prague assigned the largest Olsztyn’s komornictwo to chapter. The chapter then began to develop its lands, conducting a settlement campaign, locating new towns and villages, building mills, sawmills, brickyards, inns and castles, as being part of the Teutonic state, it was obliged to protect its possessions and assist the Teutonic Knights during warfare.
The construction of the castle in Olsztyn began around the middle of the 14th century as part of the colonization action of southern Warmia. It was to become the seat of the administrator of the chapter lands and a safe place to store the treasury. It consisted of one range on the north-east side of the quadrangular courtyard. The south-west range of the castle was added in the fifteenth century. The tower from the mid-fourteenth century, was rebuilt in the early fifteenth century, in a round shape on a quadrangular basis. At the same time, the castle walls were raised and supplemented with the second lower belt of fortifications.
The castle played a significant role during the Polish-Teutonic wars. In 1410, after the Battle of Grunwald, bishop Henry Vogelsang paid homage to the Polish king. However, the Polish crew remained in the castle only for two months, and after the withdrawal of Polish-Lithuanian troops, Warmia returned to the Order. In 1414, the town and the castle, despite receiving the Teutonic support, were captured by Poles after a few-day siege. The king occupied the stronghold with the crew under the command of knight Dzierżek from Włostowice and went further north. However, also this time, the Polish troops remained for a short time, because in the same year Olsztyn was recaptured by the Teutonic forces, led by the commander from Pokarmin, Helfrich von Drahe. During the Thirteen Years’ War the castle passed from hand to hand. In February 1454, the rebel townspeople wanted to attack the castle and demolish it, but after receiving the keys, they took it and made an important fortress of the anti-Teutonic union. After the defeat of the Polish knights at Chojnice in September 1454, the situation reversed and Olsztyn was without a fight, as a result of negotiations, returned to the Order. In the years 1455-1461 the castle was managed by the Teutonic mercenary knight, Georg von Schlieben, who appropriated the treasury of the chapter and castle property. Finally, after the Second Peace of Toruń ending the Thirteen Years’ War, Warmia together with Olsztyn was incorporated into Poland.
Teutonic Knights threatened the castle and the town for the last time in 1521, but the defense was so effective that they stopped after one failed assault. The chapter entrusted the management of the Olsztyn Castle to a canon, elected from among its members, known also as the administrator. In the years 1516-1521, the administrator of the Olsztyn was the great astronomer Nicholas Copernicus. He has just prepared the defense of Olsztyn against the Teutonic invasion. He gathered supplies of ammunition and provisions, doubled the number of the castle crew.
In the 16th century, the castle was visited by Marcin Kromer, who then consecrated the chapel of St. Anna, recently built in the south-west range of the castle. Over time, both wings lost its military significance, and became less convenient for residential purposes. In 1758, the castle was connected by the road with the town and a palace wing was built from this side. At the same time, the outer bailey and part of the walls were liquidated.
After the annexation of Warmia in 1772, the castle became the property of the management of state estates. In 1845, the bridge over the moat was replaced with a dyke joining the castle with the town, while the moat was drained. In the years 1901-1911, in relation with the selection of the castle for the seat of the president of the Olsztyn regency, a general renovation of the castle was carried out. The level of the floors in the refectory was changed, basements vaulting was destroyed, the window frames were put in the gallery and a neo-Gothic staircase was added. In 1921 a museum was placed in the halls of the castle.
The castle was erected in a naturally defensive place, on a hill in a wide bend of Łyna. The town developed on its south-eastern side, also in the bend of the river. On the other side, from the north-west, a castle’s farm was founded, and at the foot of the castle on the river, a mill. Farm probably played the role of an outer ward, through its area led the way to the castle. The town and the stronghold were separated by a moat, powered by the waters of Łyna.
The castle was built of brick on a stone foundation. Its oldest part was the main north-east residential range and the perimeter wall with the gate. In the 70s of the 14th century, in the western corner, a square tower was added and a building with economic, administrative and maybe residential functions was placed at the south-western curtain. In the last decade of the fourteenth century, the perimeter walls and both opposite wings were raised.
The main house finally took the form of a four-storey building with two decorative, stepped gables crowning the shorter sides. From the side of the courtyard there were two-level cloisters adjacent to it. The layout of the rooms was modeled on the Teutonic sites, although the representative rooms were relatively low in Olsztyn. Extensive cellars were grion vaulted and reinforced with additional arch bands. In the western part, cellars had two levels. The ground floor rooms had also originally groin vaults, there was an armory, a pantry and a administrator’s of the castle chamber. Below, in the cellars’ level in a separate room, the treasury was probably placed. On the first floor there were: a residential chamber of the administrator with a latrine, a three-bay refectory and a two-bay chapel of St. Anne on the east side. The refectory and the administrator’s chamber received magnificent diamond vaults, and the chapel stellar vault. The third and fourth storeys were single-space with a defensive porch running around. An interesting and unusual solution was to place the lift shaft at the height of the refectory. Goods were pulled up to the higher levels by ropes. On the representative floor you could get from the cloister, which was also connected with the defense porch at the north-west defensive wall. The upper floors could be reached by round stairs placed in the thickness of the wall. After raising the main house by the fourth floor, the new defensive floor was higher than the guard’s porch of the curtain wall, connecting the house with the corner tower. Probably for its communication, a higher defensive wall was added to the building, placing a passage in it, and the resulting superstructure was crowned with a small, Gothic gable.
At the end of the 14th century, the south-western building was also given three new floors with a warehouse and residential function. Finally it reached the same height as the main house, but it has a lower roof because of the narrower base. It does not have cellars, in the ground floor there was a kitchen, a bakery, a brewery with a malt house and a guardian’s house by the gate. Official rooms and a burgrave apartments were arranged on the first floor. The upper floors served for storage and defense, and the façade on the town side was decorated with a pinnacle gable. The communication was provided by a two-level, timber cloister. In 1530-1531, the castle chapel with the sacristy, made by master Nicholas of Olsztyn, was moved to this wing. It was topped with a rich net vault.
From the outside, the walls were crowned with hoarding, and the corner tower was then given a cylindrical, single-storey superstructure. It was again raised in the fifteenth century, when it reached nine storeys. On the fifth and seventh floor, there are traces of fireplaces warming rooms, perhaps guards chambers. The residential function of the tower is also evidenced by the relic of the toilet from the side of Łyna. The doors on the first, cylindrical floor of the tower led to the defensive porch of the curtain wall, while the upper storey led to the passage of the south-west range hoarding.
The exact appearance of the gatehouse tower leading to the castle’s inner courtyard is unknown. We only know that it had a four-sided base and had an ogival gate passage. In the 15th century, the external wall was built with the Lower Gate, preceded by a bridge over Łyna. The circumference of these walls was reinforced with cylindrical towers, and the castle, with the preservation of strategic and communication autonomy, was connected with town fortifications.
The castle is currently one of the best preserved medieval strongholds in Poland. It houses the Museum of Warmia and Mazury, and many special events are organized. The permanent exhibition is the exhibition about Nicolaus Copernicus. On the wall of the cloister there is an astronomical experimental board from 1517, probably made by the great astronomer himself. It served to work on the reform of the church calendar. However, in the courtyard you can see the so-called Prussian Lady, an early medieval cult statue. Little known is the fact that hoarding, or a timber porch on the south-western side is an original structure, dated dendrochronologically along with roof truss for 1429. The hours and dates of the castle’s opening can be checked on the official website here.
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. T. Mroczko i M. Arszyński, Warszawa 1995.
Garniec M., Garniec-Jackiewicz M., Zamki państwa krzyżackiego w dawnych Prusach, Olsztyn 2006.
Leksykon zamków w Polsce, red. L.Kajzer, Warszawa 2003.