The Baltic Crusades Begin


In a follow-up to yesterday’s message, here is a completely new section for Chapter 2 of my Russian history series.

The Baltic Crusades Begin

After missionaries converted the Slavs, Vikings and Hungarians to Christianity in the tenth century, the only part of Europe the remained pagan was the northeast corner. This was the homeland of the Balts, Finns and Saami (Lapps), on the eastern shore of the Baltic, and in the part of the taiga and tundra the Russians had not penetrated yet. Much of this territory was inaccessible; the bogs, lakes and thick virgin forests often meant that people could only travel through the area by following the rivers, the way the Varangians had done. Missionaries were reluctant to go to a region so remote; this wasn’t the place to be if you were interested in anything besides winning souls to Christ. The Saami were too far north and too few in number to justify visiting them at this time. And two of the other tribes, the Livonians among the Finns and the Prussians among the Balts, were fanatically anti-Christian. Thus, from about 1000 to 1200, a line drawn across the Baltic Sea, from Danzig (modern Gdansk) through Gotland to Stockholm, marked the eastern limit of the part of Europe converted and civilized by the Catholic Church.


The Balts in 1200. Today their only descendants are the Latvians and Lithuanians (the Estonians are a Finnish tribe), but as you can see, originally they were organized into several tribes. From Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, some missionaries were up to the challenge. One of the first was a German priest, St. Meinhard of Segeberg, who may have gone to Livonia with some merchants as early as 1179. The stone church that Meinhard built, and a fortress and a castle that went up to defend against pagan attacks, are the oldest stone buildings in the region; the pagans used only wood for their structures. In 1186 he was consecrated as the first bishop of Livonia, a title he held for the last ten years of his life. He managed to win over a few souls by practicing acts of kindness whenever possible, and his successor, a German abbott named Berthold of Hanover, followed the same behavior, but he wasn’t as lucky. Once, the Livonian pagans responded to Berthold’s gifts and banquets by trying to drown him; another time they burned down a church he was preaching in. After escaping that fire, Berthold fled to the German city of Lübeck, and with the help of an archbishop and some merchants, he recruited a Crusader army to subdue the pagans by force. However, soon after Berthold returned with the Crusaders, he was killed in battle by a Livonian lance. Enraged at the loss of their leader, the Crusaders then went on a rampage, attacking the natives and forcing 150 of them in a two-day period to accept baptism at sword point. But even this wasn’t worth the effort; after the Crusaders went back to Germany, the Livonians renounced the Christianity forced upon them, bathed in the Western Dvina River to wash off their baptisms, and chased the remaining priests out of the land.

This was only a temporary pagan victory. The next bishop appointed over the region, Albert of Riga, came in 1200 with twenty-three ships, 500 Crusaders, and an assortment of merchants and peasants (probably 1,000). They captured the native trading post at the mouth of the Western Dvina River, and here the merchants and peasants founded the city of Riga in 1201; this became the base of operations for Germans in the eastern Baltic. One year later, Albert organized the Crusaders into a new military order, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, to defend Riga and expand the Christian domain in the region. And expand they did; although there were never more than 150 knights in the order, their superior discipline and weapons allowed them to beat their pagan opponents regularly, and as they advanced up the Dvina River, they built stone and brick forts to secure their position. Also, for those Livonians and Latgalians (also called Letts) who accepted baptism, they promised protection against their still-pagan enemies. By 1206, the Latgalians had been converted and after a Livonian rebellion was put down, the Livonians were forcibly baptised again; now attention began to turn to neighboring tribes like the Semigallians and Estonians.

The Livonian bishopric was soon declared a state of the Holy Roman Empire, with Albert as its ruler, but the Crusaders proved to be an undisciplined unit, who tended to forget that they were supposed to be serving the Church. Once, Albert asked some of the knights to put on a Nativity play, to teach that story to a pagan audience, and they inserted some fight scenes so terrifying that most of the audience fled! Later, when the Crusaders were facing tougher than expected resistance in Estonia, Albert called on Denmark’s King Waldemar II for help, and Waldemar sent a Danish fleet to save the day for the Crusaders (1219), but then the Crusaders made a deal with the Danes that gave Estonia to Denmark, instead of to Albert. The arrangement only lasted until 1223, when the Estonians revolted against both Germans and Danes. Using captured weapons, they were able to take all the enemy forts, and they slaughtered every German and Danish soldier they got their hands on; they also had the help of Russian soldiers from the cities of Novgorod and Pskov. Reinforcements for the Crusaders arrived, allowing them to regain control in 1224. For a while they tried dividing Estonia between Denmark and the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, but when they started disputing how much each side got, the pope intervened and proclaimed the entire territory (most of modern-day Estonia and Latvia) under his authority, meaning that from 1225 onward, Bishop Albert and the Crusaders owned the whole thing.

The Danish arrival showed that other outsiders had taken an interest in Baltic opportunities. Besides the Germans and the Danes, the Swedes were now expanding into Finland; since the late twelfth century they had been converting and conquering the Suomi (today’s Finns). Then another group of Germans, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, entered the game. Founded during the Third Crusade, they started out as an order of German knights, organized very much like the Hospitallers, and based in the Near Eastern city of Acre. Their success encouraged the king of Hungary to grant them a landholding in Transylvania in 1211, to secure Hungary’s southeastern border against the Polovtsy. But soon the knights wore out their welcome, by inviting German peasants to work on their tract of land and declaring themselves in service of the pope; these two actions were in effect a declaration of independence. Calling the knights a "fire under the shirt, mouse in the bag, viper in the bosom," the Hungarian king used his own army to drive them out in 1224.

Soon after that door closed on the Teutonic Knights, another one opened. A Polish duke, Conrad of Mazovia, lived next door to the hostile Prussians, who frequently raided Poland, taking captives and selling them into slavery. Conrad had about a dozen knights, whom he called the Knights of Dobrzyn, but they could scarcely even defend their own castle. In 1226 he invited the Teutonic Knights with this offer: if they would defend his realm from the Prussians, they could have the fort of Kulm, and keep any Prussian land they conquered. The Grand Master of the order was reluctant to go for it, because he did not want to repeat what had happened in Hungary, so he waited until both the Holy Roman emperor and the pope approved the deal before accepting it; then in 1230, 20 knights and 200 sergeants (foot soldiers) moved into Kulm.

Although the Prussians fought back bitterly, the knights won their battles, following the Vistula River to its mouth and then advancing east along the Baltic coast. Behind them they built forts, as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword had done, and German peasants came to settle the now-secure land. They did better than the other Crusaders for two reasons. First, they were in effect an independent state, not directly under the authority of anyone else. Second, there were more of them. Their monasteries and castles across Europe did a better job of recruiting new members for the order than the Sword Brothers had done, and to get to Kulm, recruits only had to travel overland across Poland, while going to Riga required a trip by sea. One result was that the Teutonic Knights absorbed the other orders, because the latter had reached their limits. The tiny Knights of Dobrzyn order had already joined them in 1235. The Sword Brothers rose to their level of incompetence (as the Peter Principle puts it) when they invaded Lithuania in 1236. The historian who recorded what happened wrote down that the Crusaders "robbed and burned wonderfully in many bands, and ravaged up and down the land freely," until they reached a place called Saule. Here the Lithuanians ambushed them in a swamp, where their light cavalry had the advantage over the heavy cavalry of the knights. About 50 Crusaders were killed, including the order’s Grand Master; 2,700 foot soldiers (mostly tribesmen allied with the Crusaders) were also killed. Those pagans still living in Estonia and Latvia revolted when they heard the news, especially on Saaremaa, an offshore Estonian island. These disasters left the Sword Brothers so demoralized and reduced in number that the remainder of them joined the Teutonic Knights in 1237, meaning that the Teutonic Knights were now the dominant pro-Western faction in the Baltic.


The campaigns of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword (red arrows) and the Knights of the Teutonic Order (black arrows), 1200-1260. This is a thumbnail picture, click on it to see the full-sized map (850 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

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