Lithuanian Expansion of the Teutonic Knights

In the mid-thirteenth century Teutonic Knights had brought about the conversion of a deadly enemy, Mindaugas, and crowned him as the first king of Lithuania. They did this in the traditional manner for the region, by persuading him that it was to his advantage to have the crusaders as allies rather than as enemies. With help from the Teutonic Knights – or, more to the point, perhaps, without the Teutonic Knights striking into his territories from the north and west – Mindaugas could expand his realm into Tatar-threatened Rus’ian lands in a wide arc from his north-east to his south-west.

For Mindaugas, the only unpleasant aspect to the reversal of religious orientation – other than having to explain his change of heart to his priests and boyars – was to have a few drops of water sprinkled on his head and having to listen to an occasional strange ritual with exotic music. Being already monogamous and not much impressed by any religious doctrine, pagan or Christian, he changed his behaviour and attitudes very little. This scepticism was not a good sign for the Teutonic Knights – conversions based solely on Realpolitik are rooted in sandy soil, and in the early 1260s Mindaugas began to see more disadvantages in being a Christian than advantages. Consequently he returned to paganism with about as much enthusiasm as he had embraced Catholicism – it seemed the best way to placate those nobles who admired the way the Samogitian pagans were crushing crusader armies. The change of heart saved Mindaugas only a short while, however, his enemies assassinating him anyway, but his rejection of Roman Catholicism altered the seemingly predetermined history of the Baltic region. His successors were to remain pagan for more than a century, largely because their important subjects believed that the native gods brought victories in battle, but also because their Rus’ian subjects were more willing to tolerate pagans ruling over them temporarily than to accept Roman Catholic help. Gediminas (b.1257, grand prince 1316 – 41) was an eminently practical ruler, and so were his many descendants; perhaps nowhere else in Europe did a dynasty exist which operated more consistently by the rules of self-interest than did these talented and resourceful men. They were not about to put their Rus’ian policies at risk by conversion to Roman Catholicism, but they were quite willing to allow Western Christians to believe what they wanted – that only the Teutonic Order’s aggressions stood between them and salvation.

The Lithuanian rulers were called grand princes, a term familiar to their Rus’ian subjects. But the theoretical title meant little. Most followers and retainers gave their loyalty to the Gediminid dynasty on the basis of family ties and the assurance of offices and rewards, not on the basis of ancient tradition or religion. Many Lithuanian nobles had undergone Orthodox baptism in order to placate the Rus’ians in the towns where they had been stationed as rulers and garrison commanders; many had married Christian women, Orthodox and Catholic alike. But others remained pagan. Without any doubt, paganism had some strong attractions, not the least of which was its assurance that Lithuania would continue to be ruled by a Lithuanian. Also, the adherence to paganism was the only way to guarantee that the independent-minded Samogitians would recognise a ruler from the central hill country of Lithuania – they would reject a weak Christian ruler as assuredly as they had rejected the powerful Mindaugas. Paganism was not a dying religion in Samogitia. To the contrary, it was held with all the fervour of uneducated and untravelled fundamentalists of any religion today.

When the pagans had returned to power they had burned the cathedral in Vilnius, covered its ruins with sand, and erected a shrine to Perkunas over it. This shrine to the thunder god probably had the same dramatic impact on the pagans as the Christian cathedral it replaced had made earlier. Traditionally, pagans conducted their ceremonies in the sacred forests, which perhaps explains why this masonry structure was left open to the sky with twelve steps leading up to a huge altar. There the priests may have placed a wooden statue of the god and maintained an eternal flame. This suggests an evolving paganism, a dynamic religion which adopted some of the more popular features of its competition.

The Gediminid princes prided themselves on being secular and tolerant for their day. They were superstitious, but they had no desire to force their paganism on others, or even to offer it to them. The grand princes allowed Franciscan friars to maintain a chapel in Vilnius for Roman Catholic merchants and emissaries, only once turning them into martyrs. Even more toleration was granted Orthodox churchmen – for the practical reason that many of their subjects were Orthodox. Some of their Tatar bodyguards were Moslems who lived in their own protected communities. The princes, therefore, followed a policy of nominal paganism that guaranteed extensive toleration of group traditions. This survived as late as World War Two in eastern and east central Europe, with governments negotiating with the leaders of minority groups who then enforced the laws and edicts issued from above.

This practicality should never mislead us into thinking that medieval group toleration is the same as modern tolerance for individual choices, or even that it is the same as Moslem toleration, which is too often only permission to live as second-class citizens. It was generous for its time, and that is surely praise enough.

Crusader Efforts to Revitalise Holy War

Division in the crusader ranks brought an end to the string of successes that had marked the end of the thirteenth century. Once the Prussian master had control of the wilderness marking the frontiers with Lithuania and Masovia, once the Livonian master had conquered the Semgallians, each reverted to a defensive strategy. These were responses to local conditions: Poland was reuniting, Riga and the archbishop of Riga were becoming restive, and the papacy was in turmoil following the kidnapping of Boniface VIII and the transfer of the curia to Avignon. The Holy Roman Empire was insufficiently stable for the grand master to be able to establish the kind of close personal relationship that had existed with Ottokar of Bohemia. Intelligent powerful dukes and archbishops stayed at home to await the outcome of events.

As a result, the Teutonic Knights were unable to bring together the coalitions that had made victory possible only a few years before. The Rigans and the archbishop were now enemies, and the German nobles in Livonia as well as the native tribes were concerned about the civil war there. Crusaders from Germany and Poland had not come to Prussia for years. The Masovian and Galician-Volhynian dukes who had shared the rigours of the Sudovian campaign were not interested in fighting north of the Nemunas (Memel) River. As a result of all these developments, the Teutonic Knights were unable to make the show of force in the Samogitian wilderness that was necessary to suppress the pagans there who were supporting rebellions in Prussia and Livonia.

The Samogitians eventually threw in their lot with Duke Vytenis (1295 – 1316). (They did so literally, since no decision was ever reached without a priest casting lots to ask advice from the gods.) Vytenis had been rampaging through Livonia. Now the united pagan armies struck the Christianised natives in Semgallia, Kurland, and Samland, and the leaders of the Teutonic Knights could do little to stop them. The problem became so serious that after 1300 every grand master had come north to investigate. Each had concluded that the problem was not military, but political. The solution was to remove the archbishop of Riga and his citizens from the enemy coalition. Knowing that this could be done better from Avignon than Marienburg, the grand masters had returned repeatedly to the Holy Roman Empire to confer with the leading political and ecclesiastical figures.

Meanwhile, patrols guarded the Prussian frontier against incursions, and minor raids across the wilderness kept some pagans at home to guard their villages and fields. The main base for Prussian patrols was at Ragnit, on the left bank of the Nemunas about sixty miles from the river’s mouth and almost equidistant from Königsberg on the Pregel River and the castle at Memel, guarding the mouth of the Kurland bay and the coastal road to Livonia. Those three points formed a rough triangle defining the Christian presence in the river valley. Supported by another strong castle just downriver at Tilsit, the garrison at Ragnit had borne the brunt of the border war. For attacks across the wilderness, the castellan at Ragnit called on the advocates of Samland and Nattangia and their native militias. The method of warfare was to steal cattle, burn homes and crops, and kidnap everyone who did not hide or die in resisting capture. By the standards of the time this was not immoral. Instead, in an era when fortifications were almost impregnable and troops had to be paid in booty, wearing down the enemy was the only practical strategy. Moreover, the crusaders justified whatever brutal acts they and their subjects committed as necessary to achieve a worthy goal, the end of raids on Christian lands and the extirpation of paganism.

Similar patrols watched the paths along Livonia’s southern and eastern frontiers from bases at Goldingen, Mitau, Dünaburg, Rositten, Marienhausen, and Neuhausen. The Livonian master had resettled the Semgallians to the north, around Mitau. Their lands reverted to forest and swamp, a desolate region patrolled by experienced and ruthless scouts from both sides. No one else entered the region. For the Livonian master to communicate with Prussia in the wintertime, he had to send riders across Kurland, then down the coast to Memel. Handing a message to one of the many captains who sailed from Livonian ports was risky because Riga was in revolt at this time, and merchants tended to stick together; in any case, the seas were only open in the summer.

Preachers of the crusades over the years had told Christians that the enemies of the cross were foes of both God and man. Therefore, pagans, Saracens, schismatics, and heretics had no right to exist. They were a danger to Christendom and had to be destroyed, like sheep when infected with disease, to save the healthy ones. Whatever doubts may have existed were quickly stilled by the Church. Churchmen declared that any war between Christians and infidels was a just war, a proper means of protecting and expanding Christendom. Citing St Augustine, they declared that the entire life of pagans was sinful, regardless of the goodness or evil of their actions, because everything they did was done without knowledge of the eternal truths of God. To be sure, pagans should not be forced to accept Christianity. They were to be permitted to survive, like the Jews, in hope that they or their descendants might eventually be converted and saved. In the meantime, pagans should not be permitted any role in society that might cause Christians to admire them. Therefore Christians should strip them of property and power, of pride and prestige. From this it followed that the Samogitian pagans had no right to an independent state, especially not one in which they persecuted Christians and hindered missionary activity. It was on the basis of that argument that the Emperor Frederick II had issued the Golden Bull of Rimini in 1226, giving Prussia and other pagan territories to the Teutonic Knights, and that Pope Alexander IV (1254 – 61) had awarded them everything they could conquer. Moreover, since pagans were dangerous enemies of Christendom, often raiding Poland, Prussia, and Livonia, popes had authorised a perpetual crusade and emperors had urged nobles and knights to take the cross against them. It was the pious duty of Christians everywhere to assist in the defeat of dangerous heathens. The Dominican friars, preachers of every crusade and members of the most prestigious order of the time, assured potential volunteers that once crusaders had cut down the enemies of God, then Christ himself would hurl their souls into hellfire.

Still, it was easier to preach the crusade and recruit crusaders than it was to reach the Samogitians to kill them. The Samogitian branch of the Lithuanian people had immigrated into the lowlands north of the Nemunas River from the east and had not quite reached the coast. They lived in the valleys of the well-drained interior hill country, avoiding the mosquito-filled swamps and dense forests that formed a natural wilderness around them. This wilderness was almost untouched by humans, thanks to religious beliefs which incorporated forest gods and spirits into a wider pantheon, and thanks also to fear of attack from dangerous neighbours, which caused them to hew down giant trees across possible paths. This wilderness grew more dense after the arrival of the crusaders. Small raiding parties, often composed of native peoples who had suffered Lithuanian attacks for generations, annihilated isolated farmsteads, leaving few surviving settlements whose people could report incursions by larger parties of knights and native warriors; and the Samogitians, unlike the Lithuanians in the central highlands, lacked an effective system of taxation or military service that would support isolated castles as bases for scouts. Within a few years the western Samogitian communities vulnerable to attack from Memel and Kurland were abandoned and the tribesmen established new villages further inland. The unused fields soon became part of the forest. In time a vast wilderness up to ninety miles wide stretched along every frontier separating the Christian domains in Prussia and Livonia from Samogitia and Lithuania. Only a few paths led through it.

Vytenis of Lithuania

By 1309 the Teutonic Knights had the situation in Livonia once more in hand. They had not defeated either the Rigans or Vytenis, but neither did they fear defeat. So secure was the situation that the Prussian master had been able to send his army into West Prussia, first to drive out the duke of Brandenburg, then to expel the Polish garrisons. By 1311 the master was ready to turn once again to Lithuania and strike at Gardinas (Grodno), a key position on the upper Nemunas that guarded the most direct routes along the waterways and paths to Volhynia and Masovia, or across the lake district to Prussia.

Vytenis was now a powerful lord. Called a king by his followers and the chroniclers of the Teutonic Knights, he was recognised only as a grand prince by the pope or emperor because they reserved royal titles for Christian princes. Vytenis had brought an end to assassination and civil war, and had sealed his power with victories in Livonia. He was a capable ruler and a wily commander. Often he would lead one army himself and send out others as diversions, so that the Teutonic Knights had to guess where the main blow would land; and, with so many routes to guard, they usually guessed wrong. Vytenis had Christian allies in the burghers and archbishop of Riga, and for their sake he occasionally made a pretext of seeking conversion. Franciscan friars at his courts in Vilnius and Trakai made his enquiries credible. Nevertheless, although he allowed his Rus’ian subjects and Roman Catholic visitors freedom of worship, he was a devout pagan; any hint of changing his religion would have increased the already great danger of assassination, and it would have stiffened Samogitian resistance to his claims to national leadership. Moreover, as a pagan, he personified the Christian fears of unpredictable and dangerous behaviour, of extraordinary cunning and deviousness. All these were qualities he must have had in abundance. He could not have ruled Lithuania without unfailing courage and a willingness to match wits and brutality with the worst of his enemies and the best of his friends. In barbaric splendour and simplicity he was a model pagan king, a worthy match for the crusaders.

The Teutonic Knights praised Vytenis’ skill and courage, because they were proud to consider themselves more than a match for him. In 1311 they were given an opportunity to demonstrate their prowess. In February Vytenis made a raid into Samland and Nattangia, killing many Prussians and taking 500 captives. The crusaders knew from experience that it was almost impossible to ward off such attacks. The best that could be achieved was to organise a watch for incursions, so that the villagers could be warned to seek refuge and so the militia could hurry to its assembly points. As soon as the marshal was told of the raid, he hurried from Königsberg with his mobile forces and, gathering the militia, followed the raiders’ path. He knew that raiding parties were most vulnerable immediately after the forces split up and separately returned to their homes, but he attacked while the pagans were feasting and dividing up the booty and prisoners. His victory was among the greatest of this era.

For their part, the Teutonic Order made at least one winter raid most years. Cavalry was very effective on the frozen rivers and swamps, and the Lithuanians were unable to hide in ambush in the snow as easily as among lush summer foliage. In the winter of 1311 – 12 six knights led 400 Nattangian militiamen through the Sudovian wilderness to Gardinas, taking a roundabout route through supposedly impassable swamps where they were lost for two days. The Lithuanians, who had patrolled all the usual paths carefully, had no warning when the Christians suddenly fell on them. The Prussians went on a rampage, burning, killing, collecting captives, and killing those who could not manage the difficult journey into exile. Then they escaped by the quickest route. Their terrible revenge for past sufferings inflamed the Lithuanians to an equally great hatred.

Nationalist historians of the modern era sometimes forget this mutual hostility of the native tribes. This desire to take revenge, to harm one’s traditional foes, made it easy to raise armies, to organise raids, and to summon labourers for work on fortifications. It also led directly to terrible atrocities.

The attack on Gardinas was a direct challenge to Vytenis, whose prestige rested on his military victories and whose principal deity was a war god. In April he pressed deep into Prussia, arriving without warning with a force estimated by a chronicler with the usual exaggeration at 8,000 men. Coming through the lake district during the period of thaw, he evaded patrols sent out by the Teutonic Knights and the dukes of Masovia, then swept up through Ermland to the castle at Braunsberg, yelling insults at the bishop on the ramparts and destroying every settlement along the coast. According to the Christian reports, he made churches a special target of his wrath, desecrating altars, tearing down crucifixes and trampling on them, handling and spitting on the consecrated wafers of the host, and then burning the buildings. In one day he carried away 1,200 captives, bound and fettered, and that evening he taunted them, asking: ‘Where is your God? Why did he not help you, as our gods help us now and at other times?’

If that quote was accurate, Vytenis was rejoicing too soon. His forces were actually in very great danger. Ermland was far to the west. The deeper the penetration into the country, the more time the native militia had to assemble and the easier it was to catch up with the slow-moving, booty-laden raiders, whose path could easily be followed through the snow. At this moment the grand commander was gathering a large army at an assembly point along the route which Vytenis had to take out of the country.

Heinrich von Plötzke had dreamt of an opportunity like this for many of his fifty years. Now he had a force of eighty knights and thousands of militiamen in position to overtake the Lithuanian army. With luck he could destroy the invading force and perhaps kill or capture the king.

Vytenis was also a believer in fortune, but he understood that luck is a malleable commodity, one that can be moulded by the skilled hands of a courageous leader. When he saw the Christians approaching, he ordered his men to form a line of battle on a hill behind an improvised wall of hedges and trees. He must have thought that the Christians would hesitate to assault such a strong position, and that, if it came to a siege, he had the stolen cattle to feed his men, while the Christians could not have brought many supplies with them.

Heinrich recognised his enemy’s strategy instantly. Although he would have preferred a battlefield where he could use his cavalry more effectively, he was willing to fight on foot. He ordered Gunther von Arnstein, the most heroic knight of his generation, to test the pagan defences. The probing attack failed, leaving behind forty to sixty dead, but Gunther had learned the location and strength of the enemy forces. When Heinrich heard Gunther’s report, he ordered a general attack.

A crusader poet tells us that this was a moving scene: as the Christian warriors advanced into position there were cries from women and children, the returning shouts of their relatives in the militia, yells by desperate men ready for the furore of battle. The chronicle that related this scene may have been read aloud at mealtimes to teach proper attitudes to the knights and their men-at-arms. Such passages emphasising knightly deeds, courage, fairness, pity for the unfortunate, and service to the Church and Lady Mary, give us valuable insights into the mind of the crusading knight. Unfortunately, we lack a Lithuanian equivalent of this chronicle; the pagan tradition was oral, not written, and it has largely vanished.

When the entire force of Christians had formed their lines for the assault, Vytenis recognised the flags and banners of his opponents. Only then did he realise whom he was up against. Success in arms, he knew, was not a question of numbers, but of quality. The gay banners of the castellans and the grand commander’s great black cross on a white field told knowledgeable pagans that they were facing the best the Teutonic Knights had. Consequently, as the attackers approached, the less bold Lithuanians (or, at least, the most discreet and prudent) began to seek their horses and ride hurriedly for home. Meanwhile, the captive women broke loose from their bonds and created confusion in the rear. Vytenis disappeared (and escaped), while thousands of his followers fell in the hand-to-hand fighting. The Christians took as booty 2,800 horses, thousands of spears and swords, reclaimed the booty and prisoners taken earlier, and took Vytenis’ chamberlain captive. One chronicler wrote a hymn of victory: ‘Oh, noble knights of God, God must honour you on earth and in heaven.’ Heinrich commemorated the day by founding a nunnery at Thorn.

Despite what seemed to be an overwhelming victory, the battle made little impact on the general course of events because the Teutonic Knights lacked the forces to exploit it and because Vytenis had escaped. The grand prince regrouped his forces, encouraged his subjects to defend their forts resolutely, and ordered everyone to refrain from taking risks. Somewhat later, when a young castellan, Gerhard von Mansfeld, boldly rode into Lithuania, the pagans followed his small army back out of their country. Fearing an ambush, they refused his offer of formal battle, but they asked his name and warned him he would not live long if he continued to enter their country with so few men.

The fact was that significant advances could be made only by occupying key castles, and castles were difficult to capture. This was especially true in Lithuania, where the fortresses lay across a difficult wilderness, so that men, supplies, and siege engines had to be transported long distances. The easiest way to capture a castle was as ransom or by treason.

Treason worked best. As noted above, Heinrich had captured Vytenis’ chamberlain, the castellan of Gardinas. If he held him for ransom, he could have demanded a small fortune or exchanged him for Lithuanian captives. Instead, he listened to his promise to surrender Gardinas in return for his freedom. It was necessary to act quickly, however, so that he could explain his late return as the result of hiding in the woods or having lost his way. Moreover, there was no guarantee of obtaining a ransom, because Vytenis might conclude that this was a convenient excuse to eliminate a potential competitor and simply appoint a replacement. Therefore Heinrich released his prisoner on a promise to allow the crusaders to enter his castle by stealth and capture it. Not unexpectedly, the chamberlain did not keep his part of the bargain. Instead, he ‘betrayed’ the Christians by telling Vytenis of his bargain and arranging for an ambush of the Prussian forces near Gardinas.

Heinrich had not ignored the risks. He knew that the chamberlain might be a clever liar. We do not know what the chamberlain said to persuade the grand commander and his council, but we do know that treason was common in this era, that personal feuds were more important than clan loyalty, and that ambition often overrode personal loyalty. Moreover, the heathen code of honour emphasised keeping oaths, and Heinrich had undoubtedly extracted powerful oaths from his prisoner. For Heinrich’s part, he was in a position to make handsome promises for the chamberlain’s future, even to recognise him as a future ruler of Lithuania. In short, Heinrich had good reasons for trusting this pagan lord. But he had equally good reasons not to trust him too much.

Heinrich had brought his army almost to Gardinas when his scouts came upon an old man whom they put to torture until he revealed that Lithuanians were lurking near a river, waiting until half of the Christian army had crossed over before attacking. Heinrich spared the old man, as promised, and fled with his army back to safety.

Heinrich’s next effort was in late May, when he called up 140 knights, a strong force of native knights and mounted militia, and 2,000 foot soldiers who probably followed a somewhat different route through the lakes, rivers, and swamps in small boats. As the mounted troops approached Gardinas through a thick forest, they came upon four scouts. Killing three, they captured the fourth and learned that nobody was aware of their approach. Quite the contrary. Vytenis was feeling so secure that he had sent the scouts as part of a group of fifty men to set up a hunting camp. Heinrich annihilated the advance force, then crossed the Nemunas River. Leaving twelve knights and the foot soldiers to guard the boats, he struck through the countryside, sparing neither age nor sex. The raiders took 700 prisoners, and of the dead they left behind ‘only God knows the number’.

These victories made Heinrich von Plötzke a strong candidate to replace the deceased grand master, Siegfried von Feuchtwangen, but his bid for election failed, perhaps because of his controversial seizure of Danzig and West Prussia, perhaps because of his domineering ways. In any case, he was unacceptable to the electors in Germany, who chose Karl von Trier as their new leader. Heinrich von Plötzke was given the consolation office of grand commander and, later, marshal.

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