Order of Teutonic Knights



Map of the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights 1466


The Battle of Grunwald, First Battle of Tannenberg or Battle of Žalgiris, was fought on 15 July 1410 during the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War. The alliance of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, led respectively by King Władysław II Jagiełło (Jogaila) and Grand Duke Vytautas (Witold; Vitaŭt), decisively defeated the German–Prussian Teutonic Knights, led by Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen.


‘‘Domus hospitalis sanctae Mariae Teutonicorum’’ (‘‘Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Teutons’’). An order of hospitaller knights set up in 1127 in Jerusalem. In 1198 they were transformed into a Military Order (‘‘Ritter des Deutschordens’’) after the failed Third Crusade. They had three classes of brethren: knights, priests, and sergeants. All were required to be of German birth and noble blood. Some of their hospitals admitted nursing women. On their shields and chests the Teutonic Knights bore the Crusader symbol of the order: the black and silver ‘‘Iron Cross’’ that ordained, in both senses, German warriors and military equipment into the 21st century. Their fighting doctrine was, ‘‘Who fights the Order, fights Jesus Christ!’’ Their rallying cry was, ‘‘Gott mit Uns!’’ (‘‘God is with us!’’). They slept with their swords, initially their only permitted possession, practiced self-flagellation and extreme fasting and monkish devotions, and kept silent in camp and on the march. Many wore mail directly against their flesh to mortify it. They were at their worst Christian Taliban: gruesome holy warriors who welcomed martyrdom, willing killers for ‘‘The Christ.’’

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.

The Brethren also fought constant border wars with Poland-Lithuania, a large condominium that dominated most of eastern Europe and western Russia. They were defeated by a Mongol horde at Liegnitz (April 1241), but thereafter held and expanded their territory. By 1250 the Lithuanians had adapted to new weapons and mounted tactics and under a new leader, Mindaugus, invaded the Ordensstaat. In 1254 some 60,000 Germans and Bohemians mobilized to rescue the Knights. Over the next two decades they faced war with Lithuania and a 13-year peasant revolt in Prussia, the ‘‘Great Apostasy.’’ By the late 1270s they were triumphant in the Baltic.

In 1291 the last resistance to the Muslim assault on Outremer collapsed and the German Hospital in Acre was lost. In 1309 the Order’s Grand Commandery was moved to Marienburg (Malbork) on the Vistula and its ties to the Holy Land faded into legend and dim memory. Marriage to natives was still forbidden because so many remained pagan and hostile: in 1343 peasants in Estonia rebelled and slaughtered 1,800 Germans in Reval. The Brethren hence had a narrow recruitment base: they boasted fewer than 500 full knights supported by 3,200 retainers, just under 6,000 sergeants, fewer than 2,000 garrison militia from six large towns, and 1,500 poor-quality conscripts who were peasant-tenants of various abbeys under control of the Brethren. The Order was reinforced by knights from across Europe when successive popes preached a new Baltic crusade against pagan Lithuania; many came for the blood sport. This was key, as Prussia’s population was savaged by the Black Death and Crusaders from Germany grew scarce after Lithuanians converted to Christianity. Still, between 1345 and 1377, over 100 expeditions were launched by the Brethren into Lithuania. To make up the shortfall in German recruits, baptized Prussians and Slavs were recruited from 1400, and large numbers of Czech mercenaries were hired whenever the Brethren fought.

The reforms did not help: the Teutonic Knights were beaten decisively and with huge losses by a Polish-Lithuanian army at Tannenberg ( July 15, 1410). That ended their Baltic crusade and accelerated a terminal military decline. Lands lay fallow, commanderies remained empty, castles were deserted. The Poles then raided into Prussia, but after the losses suffered at Tannenberg the Knights were loathe to offer battle. A full-scale Polish invasion occurred in 1422 and forced the Knights to cede territory. In 1440 the Preussische Bund was founded in opposition to the extant privileges of the Order. The end of political and military dominance by the Brethren came with the War of the Cities (1454–1466). The Knights fought well against the Poles at Chojnice (September 18, 1454), but the size of armies deployed by Poland and the Bund told against the Teutons and their mercenaries. Nor could the Brethren rely on their traditional Czech allies: Hussite armies, too, raided deep into the Ordensstaat. In 1455 virtually all Livonian knights were wiped out. When the purse of the remaining Brethren turned over empty, unpaid mercenaries handed over the capital and fortress of Marienburg to the Poles without even a token fight. The Teutonic Knights were reduced, humiliated, and split by the Second Treaty of Torun (1466). In 1498 they regained a measure of independence when they elected as Hochmeister the brother of Friedrich of Saxony, who renounced homage to Poland and demanded the return of ‘‘Royal Prussia.’’ From 1498 to 1503 the Order fought with Muscovy, surprisingly holding its own against a more numerous foe. In 1519 the Knights attacked Poland, burning and raiding along the frontier but avoiding set-piece battles.

What finally defeated the Order was the same thing that had led to its founding: an argument about God. In 1523 Martin Luther wrote to Hochmeister Albrecht of Brandenburg. They met at the Imperial Diet in 1524 and Albrecht converted to Luther’s views, as had the bishop of Straslund and many Brethren. The original Livonian Order broke away as a result of Albrecht’s conversion. (Catholic remnants survived in Germany until 1809, but only as a landless and powerless ceremonial shell.) On April 8, 1525, Albrecht signed the Treaty of Cracow converting Prussia into a hereditary duchy under the Polish monarchy. The last significant military action of the Brethren was to support Charles V during his war with the Schmalkaldic League (1546–1547). The Order lost its rich Venetian commandery in 1595, the same year 100 knights made a last crusade against the Ottomans in Hungary. In 1618 the Duchy of Prussia passed to the Hohenzollerns and the last knights became Prussian officers. In 1695 the Order itself was remade into a regiment, the ‘‘Hoch und Deutschmeister’’ of the Austrian Army. A key result of the slippage of the hold of the Teutonic Knights on the eastern Baltic was a rise in commercial and military competition for the succession to the Ordensstaat among Poland and Sweden, and later, also Russia.

Suggested Reading: E. Christiansen, The Northern Crusades: The Baltic and the Catholic Frontier, 1100–1525 (1980); Desmond Seward, Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders (1972; 1995).

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