Baltic Crusades: The Wends


The Wendish Crusade (1147-1185) was an attempt by neighbouring Christian powers to convert and dominate the wild Slavic people, known as the Wends.  These pagan people constantly resisted change, refusing to accept Christianity into their lives, and become part of the Holy Roman Church.

The Wends lived around the Baltic Sea, occupying parts of Germany, Prussia and Poland.  The Wends actively practised a pagan faith, as their forefathers had done for centuries.  By the 12thcentury, they found themselves trapped on a virtual island, surrounded by a sea of Christians.  Much of Western Europe had converted to Christianity, along with eastern lands of Poles and Russians had followed suit.

Monks reported Wends lived under a primitive form of democracy, with a council of elders who would rule on thorny issues. Military power was by way of warlords who would rule an area, and fighting between warlords kept Wends divided and disjointed.

The Wends hated Christian missionaries coming onto their lands without invitation.  Most were driven out, and persistent ones who kept returning would be killed.

Wendish slaves were prized by Muslim and Christianized Europe; Men were tall and muscular and their women were physically endowed.

The Wends were conquered in the 6thcentury by the Avars, formerly from the Steppes of Russia.  The Wends way of life changed, they were forced into a life of farmers, caring for their cattle, the stable diet of Avars.  Villages were rebuilt in giant circles, with inner courtyards for cattle.  Eventually the Avars empire crumbled and the Wends spread out along the Baltic coast in the late 7thcentury.


Baltic Crusades: In the Beginning


In 1146, following an announcement by the then Pope, that there would be a Second Crusade to the Holy Land.  St.Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux was preaching in Germany, calling for nobles and warriors to join this crusade.  France and Southern Germany heard his call to arms as 25,000 crusaders signed up for the Second Crusade.

St.Bernard discovered that the Germans had the manpower, but they did not have the necessary will power to undertake such a venture.

Aristocrats, Saxons and men of God, like Bishop Anselm of Havelberg, believed that a crusade closer to home was called for, and put forward his arguments.  It was their belief, going to fight in the Holy Land would leave their home open to attacks, from the pagan Wends from east of the Elbe.

St.Bernard was faced by two evil battle fronts; The Baltic Crusade and the Crusade in the Holy Land.

The Crusade in the Holy Land had to take precedent, saying that the enemies of Christ, these Pagan Wends of Elbe had to be converted to Christianity or eliminated.

A delegation went to the Pope, and among those who attended was Bishop Anselm.  On the 11thApril 1147 a “Divini Dispensation” Bull was issued by the Pope.

According to St.Bernard, the crusaders were to meet on the 29thJune 1147 in Madgeburg.  In late July two crusader armies from Saxony, one from Poland and one from Denmark target the Wends.  Also, a Polish and Orthodox force attacked Pagan Prussians, and as the Pope spoke of other Pagan’s to the north, this campaign would qualify as the First Crusade against the Prussians.


The northern Saxon army led by Archbishop Adalbero of Bremen, Conrad of Zahringen and Henry the Lion were the first to move against Niklot’s Abodrites, laying siege to his stronghold at Dobin, joined by Danes arriving by sea.  Saxons disregarded the papal bull as they made peace not war, in return Wendish forces promised to convert.

Southern forces under Bishop Anselm and Albert the Bear, moved towards Pomerania in cooperation with the Poles.  Their army was split in two; one-part laid siege upon Demmin on the River Peene, whilst the other part laid siege upon Stettin.  They rebuked the Crusaders, who wanted nothing more than to conqueror this land, but this land demonstrated they were of Christian faith.

Even though the Crusade against the Wends achieved little success, the long 12thcentury crusade slowly made its mark upon its people during the 1160’s.  Wends of the Baltic coast between Oder and Elbe came under Saxon or Danish rule, culminating in the conquest of the temple-fortress of Arkona by the Danes.

Baltic Crusades: The Reformation


The Protestant Reformation which Martin Luther initiated in Germany of 1517, spread like wild-fire across Europe.  German merchants, students and missionaries introduced Lutheran doctrines to Scandinavia, where German influence had been strong, and where there was some receptivity to these new doctrines.

By the time of Martin Luther’s death in 1546, Lutheranism had been fully implanted in Scandinavian countries.  Sweden – Finland converted to Lutheranism through the efforts of Gustav I Vasa, who for political reasons, used the order to strengthen the monarchy.  The decisive break with Rome took place in 1527.  Acceptance of Lutheranism enabled Gustav I Vasa, with the help of the aristocracy to break the domineering political power of the Roman Catholic Church, which had stood in the way of a centralised state.  Confiscation of church properties, accompanied the Reformation, thus providing an economic windfall for aristocracy and monarchy. Prior to the Reformation, the church owned twenty per cent of Sweden’s lands.

Finland showed little interest in the Reformation, for they were happy with their way of life.  Some ninety percent of homesteads were owned by farmers and the remaining ten percent by the church, who used their income to support schools and charities.  Lutheranism was introduced with little opposition, and gradually replaced Roman Catholic doctrines, whilst retaining some Catholic customs and practices.  The Lutheran Church was firmly established in 1598, when Sigismund, Catholic King of Sweden-Finland was forced to abdicate his throne.

Mikael Agricola (1506-1537), exerted great influence in the Reformation of Finland, and development of the country.  He who had studied under Martin Luther at Wittenberg, translated the Bible into Finnish, and the New Testament was published in 1548.  Agricola’s name is remembered as the father of Finnish literary language.  Later he would serve as the Bishop of Turku, considered the highest order of office in the Finnish Church.

The Reformation of Finland brought two benefits; emphasis on religious instruction, following the Ecclesiastical Law of 1686. The other benefit being the founding of the Abo Academy in 1640, providing theological training for the clergy.

Transformation: The Baltics

The Crusaders

The Baltic Crusades of 11th to 15th century formed the transformation of the Baltic region from pagan farming peasants paying tribute to which Lord prevailed to rule them, to the Christianized, market-oriental, foundation of modern Baltic society.

The rise and fall of the knighthood became indicative of the changes that occurred.  The knighthood institution represented Medieval European values, and the incursion of knightly orders into the Baltic countries, despite strong resistance from pagan people.  The Germans and Scandinavians who played their part in the Baltic Crusades, left critical political and social footprints, that affected historical Baltic events, that would evolve into the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Baltic Crusades; part of the Catholic crusading movement comprised of five main Crusades that took place between 1096 and 1221.  The Crusades; armed pilgrimages called for and blessed by the Pope, its main aim to reclaim Jerusalem and surrounding territory.  The enemies of Crusaders in the Holy Land were primarily followers of Islam.  In the 12th century, the balance of power shifted, the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople and the seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire attracted Crusader interest.  In the Baltic Crusades in Europe, motivation was more about acquisition of land and power rather than holiness.  An incentive put forward to these Crusaders by the Pope, was eternal salvation.

Crusader success in the conversion to Catholicism was much higher in the Baltic Crusades.  By the 13th century, all but the Lithuanians had converted to Catholicism.

Crusades against Baltic People

Baltic Crusade Knights

When one thinks of the Crusades, we think of the 11th – 13th century Muslim wars in the Holy Land.  However, another Crusade was going on in Eastern Europe; The Baltic Crusades.

Crusades against the Baltic people, was the forced expansion and occupation of the Baltic lands.  This occupation was performed by European nations.  No heroic deeds took place, no legendary battles fought in the name of freedom and honour.

The purpose of the Baltic Crusades was to bring culture to degenerated pagan tribes of the Baltic’s.  A people who lived like animals.

Battles and conflicts existed between Baltic people and its invaders.  Local tribes fought each other, plundering wealth and slaves.  They even aggravated surrounding countries like Denmark and Sweden, attacking merchant ships and joining in Scandinavian wars for power.  Old Prussian forces would strike out at the Poles, whilst Lithuanian and Latvian tribes plundered Russian borders.

All this changed in 1193, when Pope Celestine III called for a Crusade against the Pagan Baltic’s.

Baltic Crusades: Holy Frontiers

Crucifixion - Giotto

The Catholic Church sensed an intrusion by the Russian Orthodox Church, making inroads into the Baltic lands, and in the conversion of its people.

Meinhard, an Augustinian monk from Holstein, travelled by way of the Dauvaga River in the latter part of the 12th century.  His mission was to convert the people of Livoniato, building the first church and creating a Christian community.  His successor, Bishop Berthold used crusaders in the conversion of its people by force.  1198 is considered the starting point of the Baltic Crusades.

Bishop Albert successor to Berthold established the Swordbrothers, a Crusading Order in 1202, who received papal blessing in 1204, and by 1208 had converted the Kur and Lett people to Christianity by forcible means.  Bishop Albert established the City of Riga, a city built upon by merchants and crusaders.  He became a strong leader and fended off the Danish forces, prior to his death in 1229.

Baltic Crusades: Latvia

Catholic Preachers of Baltic Crusades

In the year 1180, Catholic preachers arrived in Latvia with German merchants by way of old Viking trading routes along the Daugava River.  Upon arrival, they established communities, built churches, went forth preaching and performing baptisms among the Livonian people.

These “Holy” men were welcomed by the pagan tribes of this land.  However, things changed, when Livonian’s refused to convert to the new religion, only then did the Catholic preachers show their true colours, by calling upon armed forces to aid them in their goal.

In the early years of the 14th century, after countless and bloodied battles, that the lands of Latvia and Estonia were eventually captured by German forces, and converted to Catholicism.

The new religion; Christianity saw the people of Latvia and Estonia baptized by force.  As many parts of this new religion was not forced upon the Baltic tribes, thousand’s of its people continued to practice their pagan customs and beliefs.

Wikipedia Image