Hermann von Salza – Out of the Ashes


Unable to compete with other Military Orders in Syria, the Teutonic Knights fought in Armenia instead. In 1210 nearly the whole order was killed, leaving just 20 knights. Hermann von Salza essentially refounded the order in 1226, aided by Emperor Friedrich II (“Barbarossa”). They were given lands in Sicily and eastern Europe, a transaction approved by the pope in the Golden Bull of Rimini (1223). They now wore white tunics, an honor granted over the strong objection of the rival Knights Templar. They fought in behalf of the Hungarian king in Transylvania before moving into Prussia, which the Knights in the Service of God in Prussia had failed to conquer. The first two Knights of the order settled in Prussia in 1229; the next year 20 more arrived, along with 200 sergeants. The Brethren thereafter acted as commanders and officers in larger armies of converted Prussians who served them as auxiliaries. In battle the Knights were the panzer tip of a crusading invasion of the pagan lands of the Baltic. They ravaged and conquered Courland and Prussia and parts of Poland and western Russia, waging ruthless campaigns against “the northern Saracens.” They settled in conquered lands as the new aristocracy, enserfing native populations. Their own vassalage shifted among the Empire, the king of Poland, and distant but powerless popes. The legacy of the “Drang nach Osten” (“Drive to the East”) of the “Sword Brethren” was the Christianization and enfeoffment of Prussia by force of arms and merciless war with Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, and Muscovy. The northern crusades, especially the long forest-ambush campaigns of the 14th century against animist Lithuanians, were among the most ferocious of the entire Middle Ages.

The military tools of the Brethren were advanced and powerful crossbows, mailed heavy cavalry, stone watchtowers and fortress fastnesses, huge torsion artillery (catapults and counterpoise trebuchets), and cogs that could carry 500 troops, which gave them mobile striking power along the Baltic coast. Their early opponents had almost none of these weapons. When Knights charged native infantry (“Pruzzes”) armed only with bows and axes, the panic and slaughter was terrible. The Brethren united with the Livonian Order, also comprised of German knights, from 1237 to 1525. To their new Ordensstaat (1238), the Sword Brothers brought German and Dutch colonists and peasants to secure the land, completing the most successful and brutal military colonization of the Middle Ages. Baltic cities within the Ordensstaat were permitted to join the Hanse, as did the Hochmeister.


Hermann von Salza (d. 1239)

Fourth grand master of the Teutonic Order. In some respects Hermann von Salza can be considered as the second founder of the order; during his period of office the Teutonic Knights rose from humble origins to become nearly as influential as the Templars and Hospitallers.

Hermann was probably born around the year 1180 as a member of a Thuringian ministerial family from the area of Gotha and Langensalza. He entered the Teutonic Order when Thuringia was its main German territory. He is first mentioned as grand master in June 1209 and was largely resident in the Mediterranean countries; after 1209 he only spent about four years in Germany. In the Holy Land, he tried to expand the order’s possessions through donations and purchases. His first acquisitions were in Cilicia, which he visited in 1211-1212, but his policies only really began to bear fruit after his participation in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). With the help of a donation of 6,000 marks of silver by Duke Leopold VI of Austria (1220), Hermann acquired the possessions of Otto and Beatrix of Henneberg, the heirs of Joscelin III of Courtenay. This was the Seigneurie de Joscelin, comprising the barony of Toron with the castles of Banyas and Chateauneuf, which enabled him to start building the order’s main castle, Montfort, though Toron itself was never conquered from the Muslims. The order also received donations in Greece, Italy, and Spain (1222).

The most important acquisition during Hermann’s mastership was the Burzenland, a part of southeastern Hungary (today in Romania), where King Andrew II commissioned the order to fight against the heathen Cumans (1211). When the Teutonic Knights were expelled after trying to establish their own lordship in 1225, Hermann personally intervened with the pope and acquired papal letters, but these had no effect with the Hungarian king. It was also probably due to Hermann’s decision that the order afterward followed the call of Duke Conrad of Mazovia to fight the heathen Prussians (1225/1230). On this occasion, Hermann secured imperial and papal privileges and thus laid the foundations for the independent territory of the order in Prussia. In 1236-1237, after the heavy defeat of the Sword Brethren, the order also took over a leading role in Livonia, although it was obliged to share government with the (arch)bishop of Riga, the other bishops, and the regional knighthood.

Hermann not only consolidated and expanded the order, he also was a gifted diplomat, who mediated between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregory IX when the latter excommunicated the emperor for postponing his crusade. His first contacts with the Curia probably went back to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). He met Frederick the first time in 1216, and afterward he undertook negotiations with the Curia on his behalf. In 1228-1229, he accompanied Frederick on his crusade to the Holy Land, during which the emperor had himself crowned king of Jerusalem and regained the city of Jerusalem through negotiation with the Ayyūbids. Hermann was rewarded by imperial donations, notably the German hospital in Jerusalem.

In 1230, Hermann reconciled pope and emperor by the Treaty of San Germano. Afterward he mediated during conflicts in Germany and the Holy Land, even in the dispute between Frederick and his rebellious son Henry (VII) in 1235. It was perhaps also due to Hermann’s influence that Frederick made Lübeck an imperial town in 1226. Just when the conflict between emperor and pope was renewed, Hermann fell ill and withdrew to Salerno, where he died on 20 March 1239.

Bibliography Arnold, Udo, “Hermann von Salza (nach 2. VI. 1209 – 20. III. 1239),” in Die Hochmeister des Deutschen Ordens, 1190-1990, ed. Udo Arnold (Marburg: Elwert, 1998), pp. 12-16. Kluger, Helmuth, Hochmeister Hermann von Salza und Kaiser Friedrich II (Marburg: Elwert, 1987) L’Ordine Teutonico nel Mediterraneo, ed. Hubert Houben (Galatina: Congedo, 2004).

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