Baltic Crusades – Competition Entry

By Bloodswan

Most people are familiar with the Crusades in the Holy land during the Middle ages but far less know of the Crusades that took place in the Baltic during the same time. Those that have heard of them usually identify the German Knightly orders of the Brethren of the Sword and Teutonic Knights as the principle crusaders but the Scandanavian states of Denmark, Sweden and to a lesser extent Norway also played important roles in these crusades.

Jerusalem fell to the first Crusading armies in 1099. Just four years later King Eric of Denmark set off on a pilgrimage East into the pagan lands of the Baltic. The pagan peoples of the Baltic and Finland were the last pagans in Europe and it was only a matter of time before the two religions would clash. The Danes were the first to invade and after a series of small campaigns the first Northern Crusade began in 1147 against the Baltic Slavs. It was not until 1171 however when the Northern Crusades were given full Papal support and authorization when Pope Alexander III authorized a series of crusades against the pagan Balts, Slavs and Finns. By the thirteenth century the crusades were in full swing and the Swedes and Danes had captured several pagan settlements. In 1200 the Brethren of the Sword were established and the Germans, with their Danish allies marched into Prussia and present day Latvia. It was during these early thirteenth centuries that the modern day cities of Talinn and Riga were established. In 1226 the German emperor Frederick II granted Prussia to the Teutonic Knights and in 1230 the Teutonic knights began their crusade against the pagan Prussians. In 1236 the Brethren of the Sword was virtually wiped out by the Lithuanians and it was not until 1240 that the Teutonic Knights managed to conquer the Western tribes. During this time the Teutonic knights built a series of magnificent red-brick castles throughout Prussia.

As the Danes and Germans were conquering Prussia and the Baltic, the Swedes focused their attention on the Finns and Russia with the specific target of Novgorod on their agenda. The Swedes were defeated by Prince Alexander Nevski in 1240. Backed by the Pope and the Holy Roman (German) Emperor, the Teutonic Knights headed for Novgorod. Novgorod had been lucky to avoid the Mongol invasion in 1241 but now just a year later in 1242 they were confronted by the powerful Teutonic knights along with the more numerous Danes, Swedes, Estonian auxiliaries and the recently turned Catholic diocese of Tartu and Livonia. After a series of skirmishes and withdrawals which saw casualties on both sides the bulk of the armies took to the field at Lake Peipus also known as the Battle on the Ice. The Russians set up a defensive position at Raven’s rock on the Russian shore. The crusaders charged at the Russian defences with the intent of breaking the Russian line and capturing Prince Nevski but were met in their flanks by a suprise attack by the Russian cavalry including mounted archers from the Steppes. The tactics of the horse archers suprised the crusaders and after failing to break the Russian line the Crusader army was enveloped by the Russians and forced to retreat. Many crusaders were killed in the retreat and several of the heavily armoured Teutonic Knights fell through the ice. It was a crushing defeat for the crusaders.

Despite this battle, there were actually very few set piece battles, most of the engagements during the Baltic crusades were through raids or ambushes. There were several reasons for this but for the crusaders it was because they couldn’t muster enough men to engage the larger pagan armies in a full scale battle and if they lost 20 or 30 knights it would be demorilising to their armies. The progress of the crusaders was slow but by 1290 most of Prussia and parts of Lithuania along with present day Kaliningrad were conquered. The crusaders at this time built a series of fortified settlements throughout Prussia and the Baltic and in 1309 the Teutonic knights moved their headquarters from Venice to Marienburg in Prussia.

Next followed a series of raids by the Novgorodians into Sweden but a treaty between them aswell as the Teutonic Knights and the remaining pagan Lithuanians was made in 1323. The danes soon became disinterested in the Baltic and sold most of their lands to the Teutonic Knights. King Magnus of Sweden organised two largely unsucessful crusades against the Novgorodians from 1348 – 50. By this time most of the Baltic was Catholic but one great pagan state remained, Lithuania. In 1362 Christian Prussians captured the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. Two years later Pope Urban V urged a continuation of the Baltic crusades to capture the last pagan state in Europe. In 1382 the Teutonic Knights captured the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius but Lithuania remained largely pagan until 1386 when the Lithuanian Duke Jagiello was baptised a Christian and crowned King of Poland as Ladislas II.

A series of revolts against the ruling German orders of Prussia began to take its tole on the once powerful Teutonic Order and in 1410 the Poles, Lithuanians and other enemies of the order defeated them at the battle of Tannenberg. It was the beginning of the end for the Teutonic Order but they along with the Scandanavian states had managed to convert the Baltic pagans to Christianity. The Baltic Crusades were reasonably successful, definately more so then the later Crusades into the Holy land and as a result helped establish the identities of the present day Baltic states. They spurred on the emergence of Baltic nationalism which led to the creation of the modern day states aswell as Lithuania and Poland becoming powerful Eastern European kingdoms. Trade flourished between the Baltic and Scandanavia soon after and the Baltic became increasingly important in European trade. Finland would eventually come under Swedish rule and Sweden became part of the Union of Kalmar between the three Scandanavian states.

In short the Baltic crusades helped establish trade and the Modern states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia aswell as establish a permanent Baltic identity and sense of Nationalism.


The Scandanavian Baltic Crusades 1100 – 1500 by David Lindholm & David Nicolle
Lake Peipus 1242 by David Nicolle