Baltic Crusades: Lithuania

Lithuanian Infantry

Lithuanian Infantry

The best known history of the Baltic Crusades has to be the century long war which existed against the Lithuanians, which ended in 1410 with the defeat of the Teutonic Order at Tannenburg, considered by many, as the ending of the Baltic Crusades.

Latvian, Estonian and Prussian tribes stood their ground in bloody battles against the invading Crusaders.  Whilst neighbouring Lithuanians, formed their own pagan kingdom, to become a great power and serious military opponent in the eyes of the European Crusaders.

Following many an armed conflict with Teutonic and Livonian Orders, the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda was captured in 1252.  Duke Mindaugas of Lithuania surrounded by Knights had no choice but to bow down and accept Christianity in 1253.  Then most of Lithuania became part of the Christian realm, with the exception of Samogita who refused to accept Mindaugas as their leader.  A number of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes opted to be baptized into Catholicism as a way to bring bloodshed to an end.  However, the fighting didn’t end!

In 1263, Mindaugas was assassinated, and cheated Lithuanians reverted back to their pagan beliefs, for they wanted land not the saving of their souls.  The Order of the Teutonic Knights defeated Prussia in 1284, and it was assimilated into Polish, German and Lithuanian societies.  The title Prussia was appropriated by German conquerors for themselves.

14th century Crusaders continued their hold on Baltic lands, strengthening their power on Estonia in 1343, a result of the peasant uprising against Danish rule, and the sale of northern Estonia to the Teutonic Order for 10,000 marks.  Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania expanded his territory to the south and east, preventing Crusader incursions into his land.  However, in 1382 Lithuania lost Samogitia and for the next 30 years, came under the rule of Teutonic Knights.

Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania sought to preserve his country, and so it was in 1386, he married Queen Jadwiga of Poland.  This marriage saw the creation of the “Union of Kreva” a powerful Lithuanian/Polish state.  This union cemented the Christian character of Lithuania.

In 1410, the Lithuanians formed a coalition consisting of Russians, Poles, Tatars and Czechs who took on the might of the Teutonic Knights at the “Battle of Zalgiris” at Tannenberg, bringing an end to the Baltic Crusades.

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Baltic Crusades: Definitions

Baltic Crusades1

The Baltic Crusades were religious wars which took place between the 12th and 13th century.  Undertaken by Christian military orders, against those who lived on the shores of the Baltic Sea.  The result of many battles, led to the conversion and baptism to Christianity.

The Baltic/Northern Crusades date back to 1195 when Pope Celestine III called for these crusades against its pagan people.  Christian Kingdoms of Poland, Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire had moved its forces into position, ready to conquer its pagan neighbours.

The Wendish Crusade took place in 1147, and the campaigns were against the Polabian Slavs also knows as the Wends, of northern and eastern Germany.  The Wendish Crusade took place alongside the Second Crusade by the Catholic Church against Islam.

The Swedish Crusades took place in 1150 and 1293, and were carried out against the Tavastians, Karelins and Finns.

The Danish Crusades took place between the years of 1191 and 1202, and was spearheaded by Anders Sunesen a Danish Archbishop of Lund, together with his brother.

During the 12th century, the people of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia formed a non-Christian wedge against their enemies; the Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east.  Two Christian denominations, with two different creeds, failed to convert the people.

(Image) Baltic Crusade: mmdtkw.org

Teutonic Knights: Ice Battle

Baltic Crusade Knights

The campaigns of the Baltic Crusades were fought in difficult terrain and often in snowy weather conditions that could hardly have been more different from the blazing heat of the Holy Land Crusades.

One historical Teutonic Knights campaign took place on the 5th April 1242 as they clashed with Russians under the command of Alexander Nevsky at Lake Peipus in Eastern Estonia.

Some 30 mounted knights and sergeants along with 250 Estonian foot soldiers, clashed with 300 Russians.

Dressed in distinctive white mantles emblazoned with a black cross, the knights were well equipped with helmets, mail coats, swords and spears.  They were confident they had superior armoury and weaponry, so they charged at the Russian ranks, only to be encircled and forced back.  These warriors were forced onto the frozen lake where most of them were slaughtered.

Baltic Crusade Conversions

Baltic Crusade Knights

With the public obsession with the Holy Wars and Crusades in the Far East.  It wasn’t long before the Catholic Church and its ruling military forces discovered that unchristian Pagan lands still existed.

Europe was flooded with soldiers, mercenaries and fortune hunters, ready to sell their sword to the highest bidder.  There were military factions like the “Teutonic Order” who had achieved little success in the Holy Land, compared with the Templar’s or Hospitaller’s.  Now they sought out an opportunity to claim their place, in the annals of history.

Baltic pagan tribes separated from European lands, hidden behind forests and swamps, living the old ways as their ancestors had, from generation to generation.  Many an armed conflict took place, but made little impact on culture and life.

For many a decade, Vikings attempted to overthrow, establishing control over Baltic shores.  Their endeavours had little success and were either overthrown, driven away and chose to mix with local tribes.

Many an outsider set their sights on the Russian Orthodox Church, they who had attempted to Christianize the Baltic converts with conversion to Orthodoxy.  Russian warlords wanted to subjugate pagan Balts and collect more taxes…

Polish Dukes made attacks against Old Prussians in expansion of their lands.  They attempted conversion of Pagan Prussians to Catholicism.

Old Prussian Crusade

Prussian Crusade

In the year 1226, after the Old Prussians had destroyed the Polish Order of Dobrin which had been formed with the express purpose to subdue the Prussians.  The Polish Duke Konrad appealed for help from the German Teutonic Order, and offered them in return for their assistance some of his lands, which they could use as a foothold for expansion into Prussia.

The conquest of Prussia took some 50 years of continuous bloodshed to complete.  During which time native Prussians who remained un-baptized were subjugated, killed or exiled.  Many battles between knights and Prussians were ferocious; in some lands the people were exterminated, leaving a barren land… no human life remained.

Similarly as Latvian and Estonian tribes, Prussians were not prepared to give up their religion, their lifestyle.  In many cases they chose to die rather than surrender.

Those Prussians who tried to resist, went off to newly established pagan Kingdom of Lithuania, and continued their fight against these invaders, amongst the Lithuanians.

It wasn’t long before empty Prussian lands soon became inhabited by German settlers, and any remaining Old Prussians became peasants or were assimilated with the Germans, and vanished from the pages of history.  Later German settlers started calling themselves Prussians, and so the Kingdom of Prussia was so formed.