The Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order and Poland, 1466-1517

Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._-_Bildnis_des_Markgrafen_Albrecht_von_Brandenburg-Ansbach_(Herzog_Anton_Ulrich-Museum)

Albert of Prussia, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, dated 1528

Almost all the projects of Albrecht of Brandenburg-Ansbach were underpinned by the ambition to develop Prussia, which was initially ruled by the Teutonic Order, into a powerful principality of the size it enjoyed before 1453. The civil war that broke out in 1453 and ended only 13 years later when the Treaty of Thorn was concluded, made Prussia and the Teutonic Order strongly dependent on Poland, at the same time as more than halving the territory of the order in terms of sources of income and area. The order retained only East Prussia, a poor region with the city of Königsberg as its centre. It has often been emphasised that the Prussian branch of the order set out to strengthen its position by abandoning its tradition of appointing a leader from among its own members, who were generally recruited from the lower nobility. Upon the death of Grand Master Hans von Tiefen in 1498, the order’s leadership, for the first time, attracted the son of a prince as its new superior, anticipating that he would receive support from his own dynastic network. The choice fell on Frederick, the second son of Albrecht of Saxony and the brother of George, who was `gubernator’ of Friesland as well as being duke of Saxony. Frederick’s policies more or less fulfilled their expectations. He refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king of Poland, which had been compulsory since 1466, and withdrew to Saxony to forge alliances from there, so that he could prevent the Teutonic Order state from becoming a Polish dependency. This, in a way, connected Prussia and Friesland, as both regions were governed from Saxony for a period after 1498 by brothers who were in close contact with each other.

When this first `princely’ grand master, Frederick of Saxony, died at the end of 1510, Poland’s pressure on Prussia was undiminished. To prevent the Polish king, Sigismund, from forcing his own candidate on the Teutonic Order, the order’s leadership and dynasts sympathizing with the order thought it advisable to find a new grand master again of high birth, as soon as possible. In fact, plans were already circulating in Poland to remove the Teutonic Order as a whole to Podolia (in the western Ukraine) to fight the Tatars and other enemies of Poland. Although the Teutonic Order was still prepared to expend military efforts for the benefit of Christendom, it was no longer the flexible crusading body it had once been. By this time, its leaders and patrons regarded the order as a life-long care institution for the younger sons of the German nobility, befitting their estate. Therefore, it was unthinkable to give up the order’s own state of Prussia (or the state of Livonia), even if there were no heathens left to fight in that region.

The architect of the grand magisterial election held in 1511 was George, duke of Saxony, who had been closely involved in the administration of the order up to that time as the adviser of his brother Frederick. He chose Albrecht, who was 20 years old at the time and the third son of Margrave Frederick of Brandenburg-Ansbach, in Franconia, whose brother Johann ruled from Berlin the large electorate of Brandenburg, which adjoined Saxony. Like Albrecht of Saxony, Margrave Frederick had served the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian of Austria, as one of his army commanders in Flanders. The families were in-laws and knew each other well. At this time, young Albrecht of Brandenburg had for some time been destined for an ecclesiastical career and had already received four ordinations. He seemed a suitable candidate and indeed, in spite of his youth, proved to be so.

During his first years as the head of the Teutonic Order, Grand Master Albrecht continued the policy of Frederick of Saxony under the supervision of George of Saxony, but with much greater energy. He avoided paying homage to the Polish king, and undertook extensive diplomatic activities, employing many specially appointed advisers. At first, he operated from Ansbach, but at the end of 1512, with some show of power, he established himself in Königsberg, where he set up a more or less secular court. His main goal was to achieve autonomy vis-a-vis Poland and to reunite East and West Prussia. He was prepared to go to war for this, if he had to. But because the order had nothing like the resources necessary for conducting a war on its own, Albrecht’s only way out was to forge as many alliances as he could. First, he played the card of the Holy Roman Empire, tried to interest the king of Denmark, sought the support of Saxony and Brandenburg, put pressure on the German master, Dietrich Cleen, and the master of Livonia, Wolter von Plettenberg, and even successfully contacted the grand prince of Moscow – which, however, was not appreciated by most rulers in Central and Eastern Europe.

Albrecht’s policy initially appeared to be successful, but halfway through 1515 he suffered a setback when Emperor Maximilian, who wanted to have his hands free in the East to be able to carry out his Italian plans, concluded in Vienna a comprehensive treaty of alliance with King Sigismund of Poland. This treaty reiterated the provisions of the Treaty of Thorn (1466) regarding Prussia, and so the grand master was back where he had been in 1511. In future he would have to manage without the support of the emperor; but he did not give up. Tirelessly, he kept sending new proposals to his relatives and neighbours, aided by the brilliant, but also erratic, `broker diplomat’ Dietrich von Schönberg, whom he took into his service in late 1515. Schönberg continued Albrecht’s war preparations and succeeded in obtaining many pledges to supply troops, from inside as well as outside the Empire, and also in Moscow. A large part of his activities in 1516 and 1517 consisted of making agreements about the raising of, and the rights of passage for, a sufficient number of horsemen, foot soldiers and military supplies.

It was during these frantic war preparations that the Frisian plan was drafted. The first to comment on the plan, after Joachim, was the medievalist Adolf Eggers, who said that the plan was intended to create a new territory under the rule of the order, to which the Teutonic Order state could be transplanted in an emergency. However, this does not seem very likely when seen in the light of the developments outlined above. Albrecht’s main goal had always been, and still was, to develop Prussia into a viable and independent principality, if possible, in its existing ecclesiastical form. But if this is true, what did he intend to achieve in Friesland?

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