Teutonic Order – Wars and Politics, 1304–1409



With the help of the crusaders, the Order began to gain ground. The new arrivals of 1304 took part in the winter-reysa early in 1305. They rode to the Niemen, devastated the territory round Grodno, and camped opposite Gediminas’s new fort, displaying their banner from dawn to noon as an act of provocation. Under the banner, the count of Homberg and the other crusaders were ceremonially knighted by the commander of Brandenburg. Next year they destroyed the town by the stronghold of Grodno, and made an unsuccessful attempt on the fort with 100 brothers and 6000 knights. More crusaders arrived in 1307, with the new Prussian master, Henry von Plotzke, and in the following years the Lithuanians of Carsovia submitted and their three forts were destroyed. There were retaliatory raids into Prussia in 1308 and 1311, but on the last Vytenis was defeated at Woplauken (near Rastenburg), and the pressure on his Niemen lands never relaxed. One raid penetrated over fifty miles into enemy territory, reaching Salcininkai, just south of Vilnius; others probed every territory along the Lithuanian border, and they were sent out every year from 1313 to 1320.

Gediminas, grand-prince since his brother’s death in 1315, then prepared his knock-out blow. In 1322, instead of replying directly to the Prussian sommer-reysa, he sent a force to devastate the bishopric of Dorpat in Livonia, and opened negotiations with the pope, the king of Poland and the burghers of Riga – all, for different reasons, then at odds with the Order. The early weeks of 1323 were intensely cold, and the crusaders were unable to set out on a winter-reysa. While Gediminas’s brother David, now prince of Pskov, kept the Livonians busy by invading Estonia, the main Lithuanian army went on an unopposed expedition down to the mouth of the Niemen and took the town of Memel. In August he devastated Samland, in September Dobrzyn; in October the Order sent to Vilnius and concluded a truce. It was estimated that the Lithuanians had killed or captured 20,000 Christians in the previous year and a half.

The Order made an alliance with Novgorod, reopened hostilities along the frontier with the help of a new batch of crusaders, and began six new castles to secure the interior of Prussia. The new grand-master, Werner von Orseln, arrested Gediminas’s envoy and persuaded John XXII to issue a crusading Bull offering full remission of sins to all who fought Russians, Tartars and heathens during the next three years (20 June 1325). Gediminas replied by invading the Order’s allies, Brandenburg and Mazovia, in concert with King Wladyslaw of Poland, and then in 1329 the city of Riga summoned him to Livonia to help them overthrow the knight-brothers. The result was another breakthrough by the Lithuanians in the north; but, while Gediminas stripped the interior, the Livonian master, Eberhard Monheim, laid siege to Riga, which fell the following year, and Grand-Master von Orseln led a large force of crusaders, including King John of Bohemia, on a sommer-reysa against Poland. With Riga in its power, the Order could hold out against Gediminas and retaliate against Lithuania from the north; in the south, King Wladyslaw was forced to make peace in 1332, and the knight-brothers were safe for ten years. That is, they were secure enough to carry on the frontier war of devastation, siege, castle-building and ambush, both from Livonia and from Prussia, without suffering any massive breakthrough by enemy forces. Gediminas even signed a peace with Livonia in 1338.

By the end of this phase, both sides were again preparing for total war. Gediminas was dead and his son Algirdas became ruler of Pskov, so that Livonia was once more threatened all along her frontier. The grand-master was authorized to conquer the whole of Eastern Europe by the emperor Lewis; the Prussian knight-brothers began to construct three military highways into Lithuania, summoned more crusaders from Germany, and were reinforced by the king of Bohemia’s son, Margrave Charles of Moravia. In 1342 Algirdas and the Pskovians invaded Livonia, got as far down the Dvina as üxküll, and were held and counter-attacked by a combined force of Livonians and Estonians; but the following year the Estonian peasantry revolted against their landlords, the king of Denmark’s vassals, and the Livonian master Burchard von Dreileben had to send for a reinforcement of 630 Prussian brothers to help suppress the rising. Civil war between Gediminas’s sons prevented the Lithuanians from taking immediate advantage of this crisis, but, once Algirdas and his brother Kestutis had gained control of Vilnius, in 1345, they launched the big attack. That year, Grand-Master Ludolf König was unable to stop the Lithuanians ravaging Samland, and went mad with grief when the crusaders blamed him for the disaster; for the invaders then turned north, crossed the Dvina not far from Riga, and ravaged central Livonia, returning home with 600 prisoners. There was a further raid into Samland in 1346, launched as soon as Grand-Master Dusmer’s defensive patrol had gone off duty, and in 1347 two more invasions under Kestutis and his brother Narimont which pushed southwards into Barthia. By this time the number of captives driven from Prussia into Lithuania was being reckoned in thousands, and the frontier lay open; if the raids had continued, the knight-brothers might well have been forced to submit.

However, they were saved by an annus mirabilis of victories in 1348, and by the Black Death. The victories were secured by ‘preventive strikes’ into Lithuania; crusaders had arrived from England and France, and the marshal and Grand-Commander von Kniprode were able to lead out a destructive winter-reysa which defeated a Russo-Lithuanian pursuing force by the frozen river Strawen, east of the Niemen. Meanwhile, master von Hercke of Livonia ravaged and depopulated the northern district of Samogitia, round Siaulai, and reinforced his defences south of the Dvina. A sommer-reysa by Grand-Master Dusmer brought back 1500 baptized prisoners from Welun (Veliuona) on the Niemen to settle in Prussia, and the Lithuanians were unable to retaliate until 1352. By then, the plague had weakened both sides, and the Lithuanians’ opportunity for pressing home the incursions of 1345–7 had passed. Algirdas and Kestutis still meant to conquer the Order’s lands, but Winrich von Kniprode was now grand-master and was prepared to hold his own.

He spent his thirty-one years of office strengthening his frontier and home commanderies with new and rebuilt castles, recruiting more and more crusaders, particularly from Western Europe, and maintaining constant pressure on the defences of Lithuania. His large investment in masonry and entertainment has been described as symptomatic of his Order’s inward corruption, and he has been blamed for turning the crusade into a cruel chivalric entertainment. But von Kniprode was a realist; he was only putting into practice the military lessons he had learnt as marshal and grand-commander of Prussia in the 1340s. He was fighting a war of attrition in which he had two advantages: a more advanced technique of siegecraft and fortification, and a reserve of unpaid military manpower. His enemy had greater resources, spread over a vast area, and could inflict proportionally greater damage on the Order than the Order could inflict on Lithuania, provided his armies got through the wilderness that separated the two powers. This had happened often enough in the past, and it happened again early in von Kniprode’s grand-mastership: from 1352 to 1354 the Lithuanians reached the Frische Haff and devastated Warmia, only thirty miles from Marienburg, and in 1356 they destroyed seventeen villages near Allenstein (Olsztyn). Therefore the ways in had to be blocked; the Niemen had to be cleared of Lithuanian forts up to the confluence with the Viliya, and the Masurian lakes had to be studded with castles wherever they could be bypassed. This would leave a no-man’s-land of about ninety miles’ breadth between the Lithuanian forts on the upper Niemen and the safeguarded Prussian region. No large invasion force could hope to get through the bogs and forest which filled that area; therefore the Order could concentrate its energies on the lower Niemen and raid either northwards into Samogitia, or eastwards into Lithuania proper. The object of these raids was to extend the no-man’s-land as far as possible, by depopulating or at least devastating the countryside, and to keep Lithuanian armies pinned down in their own territories.

Von Kniprode was also extremely successful in weakening his enemies through diplomacy. The alliance of the Poles and Lithuanians, and the continuing independence of the archbishop of Riga and his suffragans, had endangered the Order in the past, and had to be provided against. King Casimir of Poland made peace with Lithuania in 1357, and in 1350 a papal award confirmed the archbishop in possession of the whole city of Riga apart from the castle. Nevertheless, von Kniprode managed to prevent active co-operation between Poles and Lithuanians, mainly by keeping up alliances with the Polish dukes, who were opposed to the increasing power of King Casimir; and in 1366, by the peace of Danzig, he brought about an agreement between the Livonian brothers and the archbishop of Riga which gave the brothers the right to exact military services from the citizens.

The Lithuanian princes attempted to outmanoeuvre him. In 1358 Kestutis sent to the emperor, Charles IV, offering to accept baptism provided that the Order hand back all the lands it had conquered from him and his brothers, but Charles was too deeply committed to the Order to take the offer seriously. Divisions within the Lithuanian dynasty gave von Kniprode the opportunity of effective countermeasures. In 1365 he won over a son of Kestutis, and had him baptized with great rejoicing at Marienburg, and from 1380 he was allied with Jogaila, the son of Algirdas (died in 1377) and fought with him against Kestutis. He was quite prepared to deal with his enemies amicably when anything could be gained by it – as when in 1372 he made a treaty involving the exchange of prisoners with Algirdas and Kestutis, and in 1379 concluded a ten years’ truce with Kestutis. He knew this old pagan very well, as he had been fighting him since the 1340s, and had held him prisoner at Marienburg for eight months in 1361. Bargaining with God’s enemies was risky, since the Holy War was theoretically unending, but it could be defended as the only way of winning that war; in any case, von Kniprode could hardly forswear a weapon used so astutely by the other side.

Von Kniprode’s success made his grand-mastership the golden age of the Order in Prussia, and his contemporaries in Livonia, masters von Hercke, Vietinghof and Vrimersheim, benefited accordingly, since the wars on the Niemen meant that their main enemy had one hand tied. They were able to stabilize their south-eastern frontier with new castles, and conduct raids deep into Samogitia from the north, often in concert with their Prussian brothers. In 1346 Grand-Master Dusmer had loaned them the 19,000 marks they needed for the purchase of Estonia from the king of Denmark, and von Kniprode did not press for repayment; after 1376 he let them off with a quarter of what they owed. Their incursions into Pskov, Polotsk, and Lithuania were of more use to him than their money.

Only once after 1356 were the enemy able to penetrate Livonia to within easy reach of Riga (in 1361); and only once was the interior of Prussia threatened by a raid down the Niemen. On this last occasion, in 1370, Kestutis was caught at Rudau in Samland and forced to retreat after a bloody battle which cost the lives of twenty-six of the brothers, including Marshal Henning Schindekopf. By the time von Kniprode died, in 1382, Kestutis had launched his final incursion, which got as far as Tapiau (Gvardeysk), twenty-five miles east of Königsberg; but that summer the Order’s troops occupied Trakai, fourteen miles west of Vilnius, and Vilnius itself was taken by the Order’s ally Jogaila, who was supposed to be on the point of baptism. Kestutis surrendered to his nephew, and was murdered in August. The interminable crusade against the Lithuanians appeared to be drawing to a close.

Under von Kniprode’s successors, this illusion of triumph was threatened by two developments. The first was the introduction of cannon, used on the winter-reysa of 1381 by the Order, and given to Jogaila as a present during the detente of the following year. These heavy ‘bombards’ could only be transported long distances by water, which meant that the power upriver had the advantage of the power downriver when it came to sieges; the Lithuanians could get their cannon to the Order’s forts quicker than the Order could haul its cannon to Lithuania. In 1384, when Jogaila and Witold (Vytautas), his cousin, were again at war with the Order, Grand-Master Zöllner von Rothenstein spent the summer building a new brick castle called Marienwerder, on the site of Kaunas. When he had gone home, Witold said to Jogaila, ‘You have the land, you have the people; bring up the guns and we shall take it in no time with our army.’ Jogaila said, ‘Perhaps the master will attack us.’ ‘Not within a month’, replied his cousin. ‘He will not be able to; and meanwhile we shall get what we want.’ Marienwerder fell after six weeks, as it happened, even though the garrison had a cannon of their own, which was so well handled that it shattered the counterweight of one of the old-fashioned Lithuanian ballistas ‘like an egg’. Zöllner could do nothing. The following year he found himself opposed at a crossing of the Viliya by Prince Skirgaila (Jogaila’s brother) ‘with innumerable bombards’, and in 1388 he was repulsed from Skirgaila’s fort on the lower Viliya by artillery. The great sommer-reysa of 1390 to Vilnius, which included Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, and lasted eleven weeks, only managed to take one of the outlying forts of the city; while Jogaila recaptured Grodno, before relief could arrive, that same year.

The other development was Jogaila’s breach with the Order in 1383 (when he became convinced that Zöllner meant to divide Lithuania between him and Witold), and his election to the throne of Poland in 1385. This coup did not produce a Polish-Lithuanian super-power, since the rulers of the two countries pursued separate and often antagonistic policies for the next fifty years at least, but it resulted in the baptism of the leading Lithuanian nobles; Jogaila’s own baptism (as Wladyslaw IV) did revive Polish hopes of regaining territory lost to the Order, and enabled the Poles to reopen the offensive against the Order which had been suspended by Casimir III. By 1392 Witold had come to terms with Wladyslaw, who let him keep the lands of his father, Kestutis, including Vilnius. The Order could only continue its crusade against Lithuania by ignoring the fact that its ruler was a baptized Christian, who professed to be baptizing his subjects.

At the same time, the old quarrel with Riga broke out once more. Archbishop John IV left the city for Lübeck and appealed to the pope and King Sigismund of Bohemia for protection. The Order seized his castles, and Sigismund occupied the Order’s land within his kingdom; the master of Livonia, Wennemar Hasenkamp von Brüggeneye, was summoned to the Curia to answer the archbishop’s charges.

Under grand-masters Conrad von Wallenrod (1391–3) and Conrad von Jungingen (1393–1407) the Order responded to these reversals of fortune by a policy of territorial expansion. Since the old frontier was now inadequate, it was decided to push it out as far as possible, both by war and by purchase. Between 1390 and 1395 the Order bought the duchies of Dobryzn and Opole, on Wladyslaw’s northern and south-western frontier, from the dukes who owned them, and between 1400 and 1402 the whole of Brandenburg Neumark, which hemmed him in to the north-west. Repeated campaigns against Lithuania by larger and larger armies, which included both crusaders and mercenaries, convinced Witold that it was worth buying off the Order to avoid becoming dependent on his cousin, and in 1398 he agreed at Sallynwerder to surrender his rights over Samogitia in return for a ‘perpetual peace’ and a strip of wilderness west of the lower Niemen.

The boyars of Samogitia were not a party to this transaction, and were still unbaptized. Campaigns against them continued for the rest of Conrad von Jungingen’s grand-mastership, sometimes with the help of Witold and sometimes not, but in 1406 they submitted, and the following year applied for permission to live under the town law of Prussia – in vain. Wladyslaw had been placated by the return of Dobryzn, and for three years he, Witold and the Order co-operated against the newly risen power of Muscovy. Grand-Master Conrad von Jungingen’s brother Ulrich succeeded him at a time when it appeared that only the schismatic Russians were left to fight.

However, neither Poland nor Lithuania had relinquished its hopes of regaining its lost lands, and the rulers of both countries were aware that the price of the Wallenrod–Jungingen expansion had been discontent with the Order’s rule within Prussia. Burghers and kingly vassals were expressing discontent with war taxation and military service, and crusaders had been in short supply since 1396, when the prospect of fighting the Turks had diverted French, English and German knights from the Lithuanian front to the crusade of Nicopolis. In 1409 the Samogitians revolted, with the support of their former prince, and Grand-Master Ulrich retaliated against Poland by reoccupying Dobrzyn and harrying Mazovia. This action was in accordance with the policy stated by his brother in a letter to the German electors in 1397; all who gave aid to the heathen would be treated as enemies of the Order. But were Samogitians still heathen? And, if so, what had the Order been doing in their country for the last decade? That August, Wladyslaw and Witold combined to produce a public manifesto against their common enemy. In it they stated that the Samogitians were laudable converts, whom they had themselves baptized, while the native Prussians were still semi-pagan after nearly 200 years of rule by the Teutonic Knights. They claimed that the brothers were not interested in conversion, only in aggrandizement at the expense of their neighbours; unless God stopped them, they would subjugate all the princes in the world.

This rhetoric prepared the way for a combined Polish–Lithuanian invasion with an army strong enough to overcome any forces the Order could send against it. From this point, the character of the war changed. It was no longer a fight against the heathen pursued by a strategy that involved the seizure of land from Christian neighbours: it became a war waged by Poland and Lithuania for the reconquest of lands the Order had taken. It was pursued both in the field and by an intellectual assault on the concept and function of monastic knighthood.

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