The War on the Schismatics



Until about 1200 the differences between the rites and religious outlooks of the Eastern and Western Churches seem to have meant little in North-East Europe. They did not prevent marriages between the ruling dynasties of Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland, or the coexistence of Orthodox and Latin churches in the mixed communities of Gotland and Novgorod. They did not prevent a Russian prince from allowing Canon Meinhard to set up his Latin mission on the lower Dvina.

The expansion of this mission into a militant lordship first brought home the danger of expanding Roman Catholicism to the north Russians. Not only was Russian hegemony over the Letts and Estonians pushed aside by armed force, but, in addition, the Latin insistence that these peoples should pay tithe to the clergy of Riga made it impossible for Orthodox churches to take part in their conversion. However, there is no evidence that the Russian clergy had yet made much effort to spread Christianity here, and the Riga priests justified their exclusiveness by sneering at their inactivity: to them, the Greek Church was ‘always a sterile and unfruitful mother’. This lack of serious competition for converts meant that Bishop Albert and the Sword-Brothers had no immediate interest in turning their occasional wars with Russian princes into wars on the Eastern Church. The Russians were too valuable as customers, and too troublesome as invaders, to be antagonized more than was necessary; if they could be persuaded to keep away from the Letts and Estonians, Riga was content. Similarly, the Russian princes were more concerned with pursuing their own internal quarrels than with the loss of unreliable tributaries on their western frontiers – a loss made up by gains through trade with the newcomers. Neither side could afford to maintain a properly defended frontier.

Meanwhile, Constantinople fell to Latin crusaders, and Innocent III attempted to impose his own authority and the Latin rite on the whole Eastern Church. He failed; but his successors were committed to following his example, especially on the western fringes of the Byzantine world, and where the see of Riga and the archbishopric of Novgorod shared a frontier.

In 1222 Honorius III insisted that the Greek rite was not to be allowed in any lands controlled by Latins. In 1224 Dorpat was captured and made a Latin see, dedicated to St Peter, and the legate William of Sabina instructed the bishop to enter what he considered the promising mission field of Russia. Despite repeated invitations to turn Catholic, the Novgorodians were obdurate; in 1234 Prince Yaroslav devastated Dorpat, and then began obstructing the Latin mission in Finland. When William reappeared in 1237, as the agent of Gregory IX, he decided to use force rather than persuasion, and began organizing a crusade of Latin powers against Novgorod.

It has been argued that he was encouraged by the irresistible advance of the Golden Horde of Mongols, which reached the Volga in 1236, and wound its way towards Novgorod throughout 1237 and early 1238. But this argument assumes that the Curia had a better knowledge of what was going to happen in the interior of Russia than the Russians had themselves. The complete unpreparedness of the central Russian princes in Vladimir and Riasan shows that they had no idea where the Horde was going; it might have turned south to Kiev at any moment, and the fact that it had got to within sixty-six miles of Novgorod before it did so was something that no one could have foreseen. As it was, Prince Alexander Nevsky was so unconcerned by the Mongols that he did nothing at all to meet them; according to the Novgorod Chronicler it was prayer that saved the city, not the prince. In 1239 it emerged that the Horde had turned south, and had left Russian territory; it was not until 1240 that Gregory’s crusade got under way, with the Swedish raid up the Neva and the conquest of Izborsk and Pskov by the Danes and the Teutonic Order, and there it stopped. When Alexander Nevsky led his troops into Livonia in spring 1242, the boot was on the other foot: the Horde had penetrated far into Poland and Hungary, and the papacy was begging the Teutonic Order to come south and help resist its progress.

It is not unreasonable to conclude that William of Sabina timed the crusades of 1240–41 to coincide with the weakness of Novgorod; but this weakness was caused by the quarrels of Prince Alexander with other Russian princes, and with his own subjects, who expelled him after he had defeated the Swedes. These dangers were more immediate than the incalculable menace of the Golden Horde, and they gave Gregory IX’s plan at least a chance of success. The other factor in his favour was the desire both of the Teutonic Order and of King Valdemar II of Denmark to take over all or part of Livonia and Estonia after the collapse of the Sword-Brothers in 1237. Only the pope could dissolve that disreputable Order, and dispose of the lands it had occupied; by granting half of Estonia to Valdemar in 1238, and Livonia to the Teutonic Knights, he satisfied both parties and put them in his debt. Assistance given to his crusade against the Russians was evidently part of the deal, although neither could well afford it. The Order was fully committed to another Holy War in Prussia, and had barely enough knights to hold Livonia; Valdemar was more immediately concerned with restoring his authority in Estonia by disseising unreliable vassals than with pushing on to the east.

However, the campaign began. The Swedes sailed up the Neva towards Ladoga, and were repulsed, in July 1240. In September, armies under the Teutonic Knights occupied Izborsk and Pskov. A friendly Russian governor was put in charge of Pskov, and early in 1241 the crusaders occupied Vod (Watland) and Ingria, the lands between Novgorod and the Finnish Gulf. Then the citizens recalled their prince, and the tables were turned. By the autumn of 1241, the invaders had been driven out of Vod; early in 1242 (according to the First Novgorod Chronicle),

Prince Alexander occupied all the roads right up to Pskov, and he cleared Pskov, seized the Germans and Estonians, bound them in chains and sent them to be imprisoned in Novgorod; and he himself went against the Estonians. And when they came to their land, he let loose his whole force to provide for themselves… and the prince turned back to the lake [Peipus–Chud], and the Germans and Estonians went after them. Seeing this, Prince Alexander and all the men of Novgorod drew up their forces by the lake, at Uzmen, by the Raven’s Rock; and the Germans and the Estonians rode at them, driving themselves like a wedge through their army. And there was a great slaughter of Germans and Estonians. And God, and St Sophia, and the Holy Martyrs Boris and Gleb, for whose sake the men of Novgorod shed their blood – by the great prayers of those saints – God helped Prince Alexander. And the Germans fell there, and the Estonians gave way, and they fought with them during the pursuit on the ice seven versts short of the Subol [north-western] shore. And there fell a countless number of Estonians, and 400 of the Germans, and they took fifty with their hands and they took them to Novgorod. And they fought on 5 April, on a Saturday, the commemoration day of the Holy Martyr Theodulos, to the glory of the Holy Mother of God.

The Livonian Rhyme-Chronicler saw it differently. He claimed that the Order had left only two knight-brothers to hold Pskov, and that Alexander triumphed by the lake because the Order’s forces were outnumbered sixty to one and surrounded. Some of the Estonian contingent – from Dorpat, apparently, not from Danish Estonia – were lucky enough to get away, but the loss of life was not severe: twenty brothers were killed, and six were captured. It was a disaster because it meant the abandonment of Pskov – not because the Order was decimated, or because Novgorod was saved; by this time, the eastward offensive appears to have halted. If the legate had planned to occupy Novgorod itself, he had failed to muster enough men, and he had underestimated the military potential of his enemy.

Gregory IX’s successor, Innocent IV, made no attempt to resume the war of conquest against the Russians; he hoped to bring them into the fold by other means. From 1245 he was busy conducting a curious diplomatic dance with the ruler of the lands on the river Bug, Prince Daniel of Galicia and Volhynia, whom he tried to entice into the Latin Church by offering him a crown and military assistance against the Mongols. Daniel was not unduly worried by the Tartars, since his principality was also under attack from Lithuanians, Hungarians, Poles and other Russian princes. However, he was disinclined to throw away the chance of any advantage, and it was not until 1257 that it became clear that he had got his Latin crown, but intended to remain ‘Greek’ in religion. Until then there was a good chance that the whole west-Russian region would be won over to Rome without fighting, and for most of that period the Curia left Novgorod alone.

When Innocent died, an attempt was made to revert to a policy of aggression. On 19 March Alexander IV ordered the new archbishop–legate, Suerbeer, to baptize the heathen east of the river Narva, and set a bishop over the Novgorod provinces of Vod, Ingria and Karelia.81 Two Estonian vassals of the king of Denmark had informed him that these peoples were eager to enter the Latin communion, and Suerbeer wrote back agreeing. Canon Frederick Hazeldorf was appointed bishop of Karelia, and in 1256 the Dominicans were instructed to preach the crusade for Prussia and Livonia, in preparation for a new offensive. But the ensuing campaign revealed a large gap between the Pope’s information and conditions on the spot. The ‘heathen’ gave no sign that they wished to join the Latin Church, and the only crusaders to appear were a small band of Swedes, Finns and Estonians, led by one of the landowners who had originally written to the pope, Dietrich of Kiwel. Dietrich’s estates lay on the eastern frontier of Estonia, and he had a private interest in terrorizing the Vods on the other side of the Narva. He made no attempt to baptize or invade the schismatics, but used his troops to build a fort on the right bank, and went home before winter. By the time Prince Alexander arrived with an army from Novgorod, there was no Latin army left to fight; the prince ignored Estonia, and took the opportunity of leading a raid north into Swedish Finland. Bulls, preaching and ‘crusade’ had all been manipulated by one adventurous marcher baron, who was shrewd enough to play on the papal infatuation with the idea of a Latinized Russia.

From this time onwards, the Curia turned to the kings of Sweden for assistance in realizing that idea, and in 1257 Alexander IV entrusted them with the conquest of Karelia – a project they carried out in part over the following century. On the whole, Novgorod and the Livonian colonies were too closely linked by trade to wage war on each other for long; papal intervention had succeeded only in giving the Latins a pretext for invasions which they seldom dared or wished to undertake, and in reinforcing the Novgorodians’ adherence to the Greek Church. Having failed to conquer them, the popes lost any chance they ever had of persuading them. The memory of the crusade of 1240–41 became part of the civic consciousness of Novgorod, proving to the citizens that political and religious independence were one and the same.∗ Nor were the Livonians anxious to pursue the crusade further south, against Polotsk, up the Dvina; fear of interrupting the river traffic kept the peace for most of the thirteenth century, and by 1305 this principality had fallen under the control of the Lithuanians.

Not that either pope or emperor had abandoned his interest in the north-eastern Catholic front: throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they both continued to assert their responsibility for the spreading of the faith into Russia and Lithuania. However, the ways in which this responsibility could actually be exercised were reduced in practice to either helping or hindering the Teutonic Knights; and, as each supreme authority went on outbidding and countermanding the other, neither could do very much. Nevertheless, while the going was good, the popes had been able to establish three of the institutions that shaped the Baltic world for the future: the crusade against the heathen, the crusade against the Russians, and the monastic crusading states. Round that tideless sea lay the stranded flotsam of papal ideology – partly dried, partly rotting, and partly fertile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *