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Baltic Crusades: Redemption through Battle


The Teutonic Knights headquarters of 1309 at Marienburg Castle.

The German Teutonic Knights, were called upon by the Polish Duke; Conrad of Mazovia.  For their assistance was needed in the taming of his heathen and warmongering neighbours; the Prussians.  Previous attempts to win converts through persuasion rather than force had seen limited success, for the majority of the Prussians were of a hostile nature.

In 1220 the Poles founded their own military order; the “Knights of Dobrzyn” based on the sword brothers, to provide protection against pagan attacks from across the border.

In 1223 a crusade was launched against the Prussians, but Prussian reprisal raids were so savage that the borders of Mazovia and other Polish duchies were in great jeopardy.

Conrad offered these Teutonic Knights the land of Kulmerland and Kulm Fort, and any territory they conqueror.  The Teutonic Grand Master; Salza, would not send his forces into battle, until Emperor Frederick II had personally guaranteed that all conquered land became Teutonic land.  Pope Gregory IX confirmed the agreement, and the signal was given as the Teutonic Knights marched north crossing into Prussian held lands.

In the year 1230, a force of 20 Knights and 200 sergeants under the command of Herman Balke arrived at Kulm, by way of rivers, by marking their advance with a string of forts.  As each district was conquered, German Knights settled within the community.  They colonised the land by providing the order with income and military service.

One advantage that the Teutonic Knights had over the sword brothers was independence.  The Sword Brothers were created as an instrument of Bishop Albert with a duty to obey and protect him.  The knights on the other hand were an order free from episcopal restraints.  In addition, the Teutonic Knights had an unlimited supply of crusading allies.  Where as the Sword Brothers had to rely on reinforcements that Bishop Albert could scrape together, the Teutonic Knights had a vast network of convents and castles to serve as recruiting centres.  Moreover, German Crusaders who had sailed through the dangerous waters of Livonia, journeyed overland to Prussia.  They had close ties with many noblemen, Polish and German who sent a steady stream of men and supplies.

Despite such advantages, campaigning against the Prussians was far from easy.  Although their wicker shields and wooden forts were no match for the crossbows and siege engines of the crusaders, the native tribes fought back with the ferocity of desperation.  Crusader armies were accompanied by Dominican priests who offered peace in return for conversion, but it was rare that their offer would be accepted.

The Teutonic Knights chronicles describes the fate of two knights captured by the Prussians:

  • One was placed in a cleft tree trunk and held apart by ropes.The ropes would be released, the knight would be crushed and the tree would be set ablaze.
  • The other prisoner would be tied to his horse, then he and his mount were hoisted to the top of an oak tree, beneath which a great fire was lit.

The Crusaders acted in a similar manner, by hanging or beheading their prisoners.

The motive for the Teutonic Knight was redemption through battle.  “Who fights us,” proclaimed the order “fights Jesus Christ.”  In the case of the warrior monks, the enemy was the unrepentant pagan and satan within themselves.  To vanquish the deadly foe, the knight-brother submitted to a Draconian regime of prayer, discipline and self-denial.

For it was written down in the rules of the Order, a knight was not permitted to own any property.  He would be issued with a sword and armour, pair of breeches, shirts two, boots two, coat, sleeping bag, blanket, breviary and knife. He was permitted two or four mounts as required, and like his clothing and equipment, belonged to the Order.  He was forbidden to mix with layman, and be silent at meal times, in his dormitory, on the march and in latrines. Jousting was a forbidden act.  He could only hunt animals that attacked settler’s livestock and crops.

He would sleep in his shirt, breeches and boots with sword at hand, rising four times a night to recite the offices order. Friday’s were his day of discipline; Flagellating his body until blood was drawn.

The knights were an awesome and effective fighting force.  In 1235 they consumed the knights of Dobrzyn into their order.  By 1236 their military force had penetrated as far as the Vistula Delta and advancing eastwards along the Baltic shorelines towards the River Neman. The union with the Sword Brothers took place in the May of 1237, after their defeat at Saule.  This brought about the Teutonic Knights Baltic Dominion, stretching far beyond Prussia’s borders.

Herman Balke, master of Prussia took charge of the Crusade in Livonia.  In 1238 he made an agreement with the Danish ruler; King Waldemar.  The Danes received northern provinces and Sword Brothers conquests in the south.  In 1240 a combined German and Danish force marched from Livonia, having captured Izborsk and Pskov, in preparation for their attack against Novgorod.

Batu Khan leader of the Mongols, headed into Poland and Hungary.  The Crusade against the Russian’s was replaced with the crusade against the Mongol’s. On the 9thApril 1241, an army of Poles, Germans and Teutonic Knights clashed with the Mongols.  The knights made a valiant charge against their enemy, only to be cut down in a hail of arrows.  Prussian master Poppo of Osterna was lucky to escape, other’s were not so fortunate.  The severed head of Duke Henry of Silesia, the Christian commander, was bolted to the tip of a lance, whilst the ears of his comrades were cut off and gathered up and presented to Batu Khan in sacks.

Fortunately for Catholic Europe, the great Khan Ogedei died in the latter part of 1241, an event that sent Batu hurrying back to Mongolia for the succession dispute.  The Novgorodians now out of danger from Mongols, took the opportunity to settle accounts with the Crusaders.  In the early part of 1242, Alexander Nevsky Prince of Novgorod laid a successful siege upon Russian territories occupied by Danes and Germans.

On the 5thApril 1242 two Christian armies clashed at Lake Peipus.  The heavily armoured cavalry of the Crusaders broke through Russian ranks, but were overwhelmed by the superior forces of Prince Nevsky, driven onto the iced frozen lake, where most died that day.

The Crusading forces barely had time to recover from their defeat, when a rebellion by Prussian tribesmen destroyed all but three of their forts and settlements.

The papacy anxious to avoid trouble in the future, used the Teutonic Knights to vanquish their enemies.  The 1249 “Treaty of Christburg” promised Prussians who renounced paganism and accepted the Christian faith into their hearts, were guaranteed rights as Germans and Poles.  They could buy, litigate and worship with immigrant burghers, they who were entitled to become priests and knights.

Around this time “Mindaugas” the Lithuanian chief whose state came under attack from Poles, Russians, Mongols and Crusaders, chose to neutralise at least one of his enemies by accepting the embrace of Rome. Mindaugas invited German merchants and settlers to enter Lithuania.  He went one step further by arranging that the Teutonic Order should take over his lands, should he die without leaving an heir.  He promised to turn over the coastal territories of Samogitia, completing the land link between Prussia and Livonia.

The Samogitians refused Christian rule, and in the July of 1260, they defeated the Crusader army at Durban, the worst defeat that the Teutonic Knights had suffered since entering the Baltics… Some 150 Crusader Knights were brutally murdered, which included the “Master of Livonia and Marshal of Prussia,” it sparked off an uprising by the Prussians.  The revolt spread to other tribes and Mindaugas seeing an opportunity decided to resume his war against the Christians.  He was murdered by his brother-in-law in 1263, this had limited effect on the military situation, for many Lithuanians supported the rebels. So desperate be the plight of the Teutonic Knights that Pope Urban IV, called upon those who had taken up the cross, to offer assistance to the order in return for full remission of sins.

By now pagan warriors had learnt the techniques of modern warfare, and were well armed, led and organised with the ability to attack fortresses, and engage in open battle.  The Crusaders suffered heavy defeats, yet they inflicted more casualties than they received.  For in 1290 they brought their rebellious subjects to heel.

With the Teutonic Knights firmly in control, what had been a trickle of settlers, became a flood.  Prussia became a major attraction, as large numbers fled northern Germany with prospects of large expanse of land and low rents.  Some 1,500 towns and villages had been founded, with a population in excess of 150,000.  A land that had seen slaughter and starvation during the Baltic Crusades, now witnessed a new growth.

Efficient cultivation of Prussian wilderness, knights would employ colonizing agents to recruit peasants, allocate plots and organise villages.  In return the agent would receive his own plot of village land, become village judge and in some cases mill owner.  A village would consist of twenty families with 40-60 hectares of land.  In Germany peasants were bound to the lord of the manor, whereas in Prussia one had few obligations; pay rent and perform military service.

Local merchants were left to pursue their own affairs.  The result being, they built up prosperous trade links, with wealthy ports of Northern Germany to land-locked cities of Hungary, Lithuania and Russia.  Wars or no wars, trade continued.

The Teutonic Order carried on a lucrative trade, with its fleet moving goods across the Baltic; main exports being grain and Prussian amber.  The Order minted its own coinage, set up an internal postal service and introduced a uniform system of weights and measures.  Policy matters were decided by the Master of Prussia, day-to-day running of country-tax collections, justice and defence came under local commanders and a convent of twelve brothers.  Many brothers being skilled book-keepers who would hold responsible positions in the keeping of accounts.

The demands, their role as scribes and clerks, these Teutonic Knights never lost sight of their true priority, the defence of the realm against heathens and unbelievers.  Christian rule benefits, no Jew permitted to settle within the Orders land. Native Prussians were regarded with much suspicion.  A small minority who remained loyal to the rebellion, were treated as Germans were, receiving lands and liberties based on their rank.  Prussians who had reverted to paganism were recruited as labourers on German estates.  So deep-rooted was the distrust, whenever Prussians and Germans drank together, Prussians would drink first, for fear of being poisoned.

In the latter part of the 13thcentury, Teutonic Knights felt secure with great wealth power and prestige, more than any monarch.  Appearance proved deceptive, for in 1291 Muslim forces laid siege to Acre, the Order’s Ancient headquarters. They lost the battle for Acre and were driven out, establishing a new base of operations in Venice.

The Rigans and Teutonic Knights were set on a collision course, as the former demanded more independence, and the other refusing to release its sovereignty over the city.  In 1297 when Knight Brothers demolished the Rigans bridge which stood over Dvina River, ensuing violence and blood flowed on both sides, houses burnt and merchants arrested.  Angry citizens took things into their own hands, storming the convent and throwing six brethren into prison and destruction of the convent. Knight Brothers responded by destroying farmland, the burning of manors and farms, cutting down fruit trees and driving off livestock.

Pope Boniface VIII demanded an explanation from both sides, and so it was, chosen representatives came before the Pope in July of 1299.  The Rigans called the Teutonic Knights nothing more than ruffians, who sought money, and did not carry out their duties in the fighting of heathens. Archbishop John III of Riga, whose estates had been seized, hadn’t a good work to say in their defence.  He claimed the Order received Livonia, and were expected to convert natives, fight pagans and turn them to the Christian faith. Imposed savagery, cruelty and tyranny, had deterred natives from accepting the true Christian faith.

The Order denied the accusations laid against them, claiming the Knight-Brothers paid with blood to achieve conversion of Livonia.  They claimed their success was there to be seen amongst the natives, if asked they would reply they believed in God and the Holy Roman Church.  Pope Boniface was left to come up with a compromise which satisfied the Archbishop and Rigans against the Teutonic Knights, even to the point of returning all that had been taken by the Knights.

In 1306 the quarrel came to a head once again, when Archbishop John’s successor, added witchcraft, sodomy and genocide to the original charges against the order.  The new POPE; Clement V, elected in 1305 an ally of Philip IV of France. Philip declared it was his aim to abolish the existing military order and create a new military order, with him at its head.  In October of 1307 King Philip IV of France arrested all members of the Knights Templar resident in his realm, they were tortured to an inch of their lives, and put on trial for acts of heresy.  In 1308 Pope Clement a puppet of King Philip extended the arrest warrant of the Knights Templar to cover Europe.  The charges were groundless, confessions extracted by torture, and many were burnt at the stake.

The Teutonic Knights watched on in disbelief, and in 1309 fearing for their lives moved its headquarters from Venice to Marienburg Castle in Prussia, out of the reach of the Pope or French Monarch.

In 1310 Pope Clement appointed a commission to investigate charges laid against the Teutonic Knights.

With the loss of Acre, adventure seeking nobles and warriors flocked to join the Baltic Crusades.  The Teutonic Knights welcomed them with open arms…

By 1386 the downfall of the Teutonic Knights was in sight.  For in 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila the Lithuanian leader became a Catholic and married Jadwiga the Polish Queen.  The Teutonic Knights could no longer justify attacks upon the Christian ruler.  This new dynastic union of Poland and Lithuania through marriage, posed a serious threat to the Teutonic Knights.

On the 15thJuly 1410, a day of reckoning was at hand.  A ten-hour battle took place at Tannenberg between Polish and Lithuanian army, who would decimate the Teutonic Knights.  It didn’t end there, a century and a half later, the Teutonic Knights admitted defeat, effectively ending the Baltic Crusade…

One thought on “Baltic Crusades: Redemption through Battle

  1. I wonder what effect the Black Death, which raged through Europe between 1346 and 1351, had on these knights, and the surrounding peoples. Perhaps such a mass die-off led to less fighting for a few decades.

    Liked by 1 person

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