The Rise of Lithuania


And now I have greatly expanded the section on how Lithuania got started.  Previously there were only two short paragraphs on this subject.  Now it is the first section for Chapter 3 of my Russian history series.


The Rise of Lithuania


Map of the Baltic tribes.

This map appeared in the previous chapter, but you will probably need to see it again, to keep track of the tribe names. From Wikimedia Commons.

After their defeat on Lake Peipus, the Teutonic Knights did not go for a rematch with the Russians because back in their home base of Prussia, a revolt broke out at the same time. The rebel tribes destroyed all but three forts and settlements belonging to the Germans, and it took seven years for the Knights to regain control (1242-49). To prevent any more trouble, the Papacy urged the Knights to be lenient with their opponents. The result was the 1249 Treaty of Christburg, which promised that Prussians who became Catholics would have the same rights as Germans and Poles; they could buy, sell and litigate on equal terms with the other groups, and even become priests and knights.

The last pagan stronghold in Europe, a group of people the Christians could never conquer, were the Lithuanians. When civilized nations first encountered them, the Lithuanians were divided between two tribes, the Samogitians (lowlanders) and the Aukštaitians (highlanders), with several chiefs over each tribe. Then in the early thirteenth century, threats from the Poles, Russians, Crusaders and Mongols persuaded the Lithuanians to pull themselves together into one state. After they won the battle of Saule in 1236, five senior dukes and their followers fought among themselves, until an Aukštaitiai duke, Mindaugas, came out on top in 1240. At this point, Mindaugas became the first Grand Duke, borrowing a title used by the leaders of major Russian city-states. At this stage, if you count the Samogitians, whom Mindaugas did not firmly control, the infant Lithuanian state had almost the same borders as Lithuania has today. But he did not stop there; he expanded southward, conquering the cities of Hrodna, Brest, Navahrudak and Slonim, a territory in modern-day Belarus called Black Ruthenia. To the east, he had relatives installed as the princes of Minsk, Polotsk and Vitebsk.

Suddenly in 1251, Mindaugas accepted baptism from the Teutonic Knights. Then he made this arrangement with the Crusaders: they could have the land of the Samogitian tribe, an acquisition that would link their Prussian and Livonian territories, and they could even have his lands should Mindaugas die without an heir, which was likely in those violent times. In effect Mindaugas was doing the opposite of what Alexander Nevsky did — he joined his opponents in the west so he could concentrate on fighting his adversaries to the east.

The delighted pope sent a crown, and Mindaugas was crowned as Lithuania’s first (and only) king on July 6, 1253. For this reason July 6, the anniversary of the coronation, has been a holiday since present-day Lithuania became independent in 1991. However, the conversion did not last because the Samogitians wanted nothing to do with Christians. In fact, in 1260 they inflicted a major defeat on the Teutonic Knights in 1260, at Durbe in Latvia’s Kurland peninsula; 150 knights were killed, including the Livonian Grandmaster, and in the aftermath, more revolts broke out in Latvia and Prussia. Then the Samogitians offered to submit to the rule of Mindaugas if he renounced his Christianity, so in 1260 he went back to being a pagan, a move which also made him leader of the anti-Crusader rebellion. The church he had built in his capital, Vilnius, became a pagan temple; today it is part of Vilnius Cathedral. However, Mindaugas did not remain in charge for long; he was assassinated by a brother-in-law in 1263, the monarchy was abolished, and a civil war broke out among the dukes, which lasted for a generation.

Even with Lithuania in anarchy, it did not break up, and it took a while before the Christians enjoyed any more success. By now the pagans had copied the weapons, tactics and military organization of their opponents, allowing them to beat the Crusaders at their own game. In the early 1260s, the pope had been planning a Crusade against the Mongols, but the situation for the Teutonic Knights looked so bad that he told the Crusader recruits to go to the Baltic instead, promising that all their sins would be forgiven if they fought for the Order, even if only for a little while. They put down the pagan rebellion in Kurland by 1267, and the rebellion in Prussia by 1274. Settlers from northern Germany came to the secured areas, especially in Prussia. By 1283, the conquest/subjugation of Prussia was complete. The indigenous Prussians disappeared as an ethnic group; those who did not emigrate to Lithuania had to learn German. Even the name "Prussian" was appropriated by the German settlers for themselves. That is why, when a "Kingdom of Prussia" appeared in 1701, it would be a German-speaking state. In 1291 the Teutonic Knights reconquered Semigalia, the part of Latvia around Riga, and since they lost their original headquaters, at Acre in the Middle East, in the same year, the Baltic now became the main center for Crusader activity. For a few years they had their headquarters at Venice, but then in 1309 they moved it to Marienburg in the Vistula River delta; here they built Malbork, which eventually became the world’s largest brick castle.

For Lithuania, order returned when Vytenis (1295-1316) became Grand Duke. He successfully defended the realm from Crusader attacks, and began a wave of expansion to the east, annexing the city of Polotsk in 1307. Because of this annexation, Polotsk is one of the two medieval Russian cities that never paid tribute to the Mongols (the other is Turov, in southern Belarus). Evidently the Russians in this area saw pagan Lithuanian rule as an acceptable alternative to the Mongol yoke. To the west, he got involved in Poland’s succession disputes, because his favorite candidate, Boleslav II of Mazovia, was married to a Lithuanian duchess. However, the biggest success of Vytenis required both arms and diplomacy — an alliance with Riga, a city you would expect to be his enemy. The Archbishop of Riga and the city burghers disagreed with the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights on how to run Riga, and tensions between the two sides grew until open fighting broke out in 1297. Because the Knights were his archenemy, Vytenis offered his services to the residents of Riga, they accepted, and the Lithuanians marched in, destroying a castle north of Riga, and killing twenty-three Livonian Knights in battle, including the master of the order. Between 1298 and 1313 Vytenis sent eleven raids into Prussia, kept a garrison stationed outside of Riga, and traded with the Rigans. Pope Boniface VIII demanded an explanation of what was going on, representatives of Riga and the Archbishop told him how the Knights had become heavyhanded ruffians, and the Knights in turn pointed to all the converts they had made over the past century, so the pope ordered everyone to accept a compromise.

The next Lithuanian Grand Duke, Gediminas (1316-41), inherited a realm that was hard pressed by attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who claimed their mission was to convert Lithuania, but were simply raiding it. At first he allied himself with the Mongols against the Germans, then granted concessions to the Dominican and Franciscan monks already preaching in Lithuania; in 1323 he even accepted baptism as a Catholic, and had his daughter Aldona baptized so she could marry King Casimir III of Poland. Only the marriage was a success. Prussian bishops, who had always supported the Teutonic Knights, refused to accept Gediminas as a convert, while Russians denounced him for embracing what they saw as a heresy, and pagan Lithuanians were upset that he had abandoned their ancestral faith. Thus, less than a year after his baptism, Gediminas returned to paganism. He did better when it came to enlarging the realm, adding a southward expansion to the previous eastward expansion. These acquisitions included Vitebsk, Brest, Pinsk, Turov, and the Berezina River basin, so that by the end of his reign, the Lithuanian state ruled all of present-day Belarus, in addition to Lithuania. Finally, at home he built a wooden castle in Vilnius, the oldest part of the Vilnius castle complex; although it was replaced by a brick castle in the next century, it is still called Gediminas Tower in memory of him, and has become the most important landmark in the capital.

Lithuanian map thumbnail.

The growth of Lithuania, 1200-1500. This is a thumbnail picture, click on it to see the full-sized map (874 KB, opens in a separate window). From Wikimedia Commons.

After Gediminas’ death, he was given a pagan funeral; he was cremated, and his favorite servant and several German slaves were burned on the pyre with him. His third son, Jaunutis, took over, only to be deposed in 1345 by his elder brothers, Algirdas and Kestutis. These two then shared the realm: while Algirdas ruled from Vilnius, Kestutis built himself a castle in the Trakai district, a few miles to the west. This meant that Kestutis would defend the western lands from the Teutonic Knights, and Algirdas would handle military affairs in the south and east. With the Golden Horde declining, and the Russian states in the Ukraine fighting among themselves, Algirdas was able to make spectacular gains, such as Chernigov, Kursk, Bryansk and Kiev; Lithuania now challenged Mongol control over the western Ukraine. However, the remaining Russian state in the region, Galicia, was conquered by Poland, and when Algirdas fought a war with the new state of Muscovy, he besieged Moscow twice, in 1368 and 1370, but did not take that city.

Algirdas died in 1377, and he was cremated on a pyre with eighteen horses and many of his possessions, like a chieftain from an earlier time. His son Jogaila succeeded him in Vilnius, but he could not get along with his uncle Kestutis. A civil war broke out between them in 1380, and Kestutis won the first round, driving Jogaila from Vilnius and proclaiming himself the new Grand Duke. However, Jogaila was preferred by his father’s vassals, allowing him to raise an army and come back in 1382. From Vilnius, Jogaila marched to Trakai, and Kestutis and his son Vytautas went there as well, expecting to negotiate a settlement; instead Jogaila seized the two and threw them into prison. There Kestutis died a week later, while Vytautas escaped, fled to the Teutonic Knights, and was baptized in Marienburg.

An invasion of Lithuania by the Teutonic Knights in 1383 showed they were still a serious menace. So much of a menace, in fact, that Jogaila and Vytautas buried the hatchet; in return for Vytautas turning against the Knights, Jogaila gave back his fiefdom in Trakai. Fortunately for the Grand Duke, the Knights had made enemies of their other neighbors, and Jogaila could get one of them on his side if he became a Christian. The question was: Should he convert to Orthodoxy in order to secure help from Muscovy, or join Catholicism to gain an alliance with Poland?

A vacant Polish throne decided the answer. Poland’s Casimir III had died without leaving an heir in 1370, and he bequeathed his crown to his nephew, Louis I of Hungary. Louis was a very capable ruler for both countries, but then he made the same mistake as Casimir by leaving only daughters. The eldest daughter, Mary, received Hungary, and the second, Jadwiga or Hedwig, became the queen of Poland. Both of them were minors, so they would need husbands to survive in the medieval world, and Jogaila found out he could marry Jadwiga if he was a Catholic. Therefore he accepted baptism in 1386, the wedding took place, and Jogaila became King Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland. However, the Lithuanian nobility would not accept the new arrangement while Jogaila was both Grand Duke and king, and the Poles soon decided he was giving too much attention to Lithuania and not enough attention to them. To satisfy both groups, he made Vytautas, his cousin and former enemy, the next Grand Duke. A wave of baptisms followed: the Lithuanian nobility were baptized fairly quickly, the Aukštaitians were baptized in 1387, and the Samogitians underwent baptism in 1413. In that way Lithuania accepted Christianity at last. Equally important, the Polish-Lithuanian union formed by the 1386 wedding would last for 400 years. Though it was a dual monarchy, in effect one nation with two governments, as long as both heads of state were in agreement on military affairs and foreign policy, the union worked better than you might expect.

Re-enactor dressed as a knight.

Just for fun, here is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, who followed the example set by the Polish-Lithuanian union. Should we say he got medieval on his girlfriend?

Lithuania’s best years began with the reign of Vytautas (1392-1430). To the east, Lithuania captured Smolensk (1395); this acquisition put the eastern frontier within striking distance of Pskov, Novgorod, and Moscow. To the south, Lithuania gained loose control over the Black Sea shore. To the southeast, Lithuania contested with Muscovy for control of the Verkhovsk district. Sophia, the daughter of Vytautas, married Vasili I, the prince of Moscow, so for most of the fiteenth and sixteenth centuries, Moscow’s rulers had both Lithuanian and Russian ancestry.

However, the most important achievement was in the west — the breaking of the power of the Teutonic Knights. The Knights reached their peak in 1398, when the latest round of fighting ended with Vytautas ceding the Samogitian district to them; the Knights now ruled Estonia, Latvia, Prussia, and the western half of present-day Lithuania. As long as Lithuania had practiced paganism, slavery and human sacrifice, the Teutonic Order could claim its cause was a righteous one, but now that Lithuania was Christian, the Baltic Crusades were over; any conflicts after this were ordinary wars. To justify continued hostilities, the Knights claimed that the conversion of the Lithuanians was not genuine, or that they actually practiced a heresy. Most Europeans did not buy it, though, so when Vytautas and Wladislaw launched an invasion of Prussia with their combined armies, Russians from Smolensk, Mongols from the Golden Horde, and mercenaries from central Europe went with them. Against this, the Teutonic Knights could only call on more mercenaries. Figures on the numbers of soldiers involved are not available; all we know for sure is that the Polish-Lithuanian coalition was larger, and this was one of the largest battles fought in medieval Europe. Because the Teutonic Knights wore heavier armor, had more artillery (100 cannon, compared with 16 cannon for the coalition) and a more fearsome reputation, the battle would not be decided by numbers alone.

The site of the showdown is called Tannenberg in German, Grünwald in Polish, and Žalgiris in Lithuanian. Here the opposing armies met on the morning of July 15, 1410, and fought for ten hours. The initial clashes drove the Lithuanians from the field, and the Teutonic Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, launched a charge against the Poles, in the hope of killing King Wladyslaw. Instead, some of the Lithuanians returned at this point, and von Jungingen was the one killed. Now with the Grand Master and the most of their leadership dead, it was the Knights’ turn to flee. Some escaped into the forest, while others went to a nearby village and tried to build a defensive barricade by chaining wagons together (an early example of "circling the wagons"). But that only caused the village’s residents to join the victors in killing the Knights; it was said that more bodies were found in the village than anywhere else after the battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian coalition went on from Tannenberg to Marienburg, where they razed the town, but Malbork Castle was too strong for them to take. In the treaty ending the war, the Teutonic Order did not lose much land; they mainly had to give Samogitia back to Lithuania. For them the real loss came from the number of knights lost, the reparations they had to pay, and the cost of paying the ransoms for all of their soldiers captured. Those losses and expenses sent the Order into a death spiral. After Tannenberg they won no more victories. With the Thirteen Years War (1454-66), which began with the revolt of the burghers and nobles in Prussia, Poland invaded and took away Marienburg, forcing the Grand Master to set up a new capital at Königsberg (modern Kaliningrad). The end result of this war was that West Prussia went to Poland, and the Teutonic Knights had to swear vassalage to the king of Poland to keep the rest.

In the past few sections of this narrative, we have gone to great length to tell what non-Russians were doing in territories that have been considered Russian more recently. The most important effect of all these activities is that because the Eastern Slavs had been divided and conquered politically, they also were permanently divided ethnically. The Slavs under Lithuanian rule developed cultural and linguistic differences from their brethren and became known as "White Russians," Byelorussians, or Belarusians. Those who lived under the Mongol thumb became the Ukrainians or "Little Russians" of today. The Russians in the city-states along the Volga intermarried with the Finns who had inhabited the area before the twelfth century, and became the "Great Russians," the group that by virtue of numbers has dominated Russia ever since.

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