The Baltic Crusades [11th Century CE – 16th Century CE]  

The Northern Crusades in the Baltic area are less well known in English speaking countries than they should be.  After all, unlike Medieval Europe’s crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades added to the territory of Christendom on a long term basis.  Furthermore, like the Crusades in the Middle East, the Baltic Crusades generated conditions that have exacerbated hostilities in the area and beyond to this day.

Some of the difficulties arose from geographically non-contiguous entities like German East Prussia, so convenient an excuse for German aggression in the build up to World War II, and the contemporary Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, which poses long-term problems for Poland, Lithuania, and allied countries.  The Baltic Crusades and Danzig Corridor are not merely of antiquarian interest.

The Northern Crusades took place between the 11th and 16th centuries CE primarily in the lands of Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Prussia, and Lithuania,  though some targeted Orthodox communities of Russians, especially Novgorod and Pskov.

The main aggressors were Germans, with campaigns by Danish, Swedish, Polish, English, and French forces as well.  Before he usurped the English throne, Henry Bolingbroke [Henry IV] honed his combat skills in two attacks on Vilnius directed by the Teutonic Knights [1390, 1392].

Dealing with the history of the Baltic wars is made complex by efforts of West European countries to justify campaigns of naked aggression against pagans and Orthodox Christians alike as Crusades.

The Germanic Teutonic Knights portrayed their efforts in Baltic areas as selfless altruistic campaigns to defend and expand Christendom.  To take such protestations at face value in regards to their efforts in the 13th century would be naïve.  To do so for their actions after Lithuania converted to Catholicism in 1386 stretches credulity beyond reason; to do so after their crushing defeat at Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410 is risible.

The Swedes recast many of their expansionist efforts against Christian Russians as crusades, with or without Papal blessings, in fits of Romanticized pseudo-history writing during the 19th century.

Originally the Baltic Crusades were justified as necessary to protect Christian missionaries and prevent morally repugnant pagan practices such as persecution of Christian converts by shamans, infanticide, polygamy, worship of idols, and human sacrifice.    By 1300 these goals had been achieved in the Baltic lands.  The attacks continued.

Protection of missionaries remained a staple public justification of European military aggression for centuries afterwards, in geographies as diverse as the Americas, Africa, and China.  French and Germans alike claimed their late imperialism in China was a response to the persecution of missionaries [1899 -1901].

Medieval Christian merchants in the Baltic areas also wanted crusaders to provide protection against local pirates and access to markets on the Baltic coast and major rivers of the region.

Military leaders found that designating their invasions of and reprisals in Baltic lands as Crusades was generally helpful in their recruitment drives and formation of alliances as they expanded their territories at the expense of native tribes and kingdoms.

If the Pope blessed your invasion and the war went your way, you could benefit monetarily from instituting or restructuring the Church in conquered territories.

The non-pecuniary results could also be dramatic, as the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 demonstrated. Pope Alexander II gave approval to William’s invasion, which enabled the Normans to replace English churchmen with Norman clergy. One unintended result was the near disappearance of Old English as a written language.  The spoken language evolved quickly without the restraint of literacy, morphing from something close to Old German into the promiscuous tongue to which Chaucer and Shakespeare gave voice.

Similar to the way that proximity to Roman military culture fostered the development of Gothic confederations in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, the Baltic Crusaders prompted formation of the first Lithuanian kingdom in 1251.

In 1253 the King of Lithuania, Mindaugus, and his wife were baptized as Christians.  If Mindaugus thought this would halt the Crusader’s attacks, he was soon disabused of the notion.  Lithuania officially became a Christian nation in 1386, when its Grand Duke Jogaila married 11 year old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

The Teutonic Knights kept attacking until they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg [Grunwald] in 1410.  More destructive to the ethnically and religiously diverse state of Lithuania in the long run was Jogaila’s choice of the Catholic brand of Christianity, which alienated many of his Orthodox subjects.

Previously the collapse of Kievan Rus as a result of Mongolian and Polish assaults led many Russians to turn to Lithuania for protection. By the middle of the 14th century, Lithuania had become the largest state in Europe, briefly reaching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Despite its union with Poland in 1569, creating a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that lasted more than two centuries, neighboring countries dismantled the Lithuanian state piece by piece.  This process, which was complete by 1795, saw Russia annexing most of Lithuania’s territory.

Luther and the Reformation led to the end of the Teutonic Knights’ power.  In 1525 Grand Master Albert von Brandenburg declared himself a Protestant, dissolved the Order, and made its lands a Polish duchy.

The Livonian Knights, an offshoot organization, survived only to be attacked by Russia, prompting Denmark and Sweden to join in the fighting.  After a decisive defeat by Moscow at the Battle of Ergeme in 1560, in 1561 the Livonian Master declared his Lutheranism, and converted land held by the Order in Semigallia and Courland into a hereditary duchy for his family.  Most of the remaining land was taken by Lithuania, with Denmark and Sweden grabbing portions of northern Estonia.

The end of the Northern Crusades did not bring peace to the Baltic region.


Further Reading:

  • Eric Christiansen’s The Northern Crusades details the Medieval attempts at military Christianization and domination of the Latvians, Lithuanians, Finns, Estonians, Prussians, and other inhabitants of the Baltic region. It is the only English language narrative currently in print to provide a comprehensive overview. On the positive side the narrative is clear and generally judicious; on the negative side, the lack of properly scaled detailed maps is a frequent irritation.
  • William Urban has a number of books that emphasize the German efforts, including The Baltic Crusade and The Teutonic Knights: A Military History, as well as monographs on the Samogitian, Livonian, and Prussian crusades. His Dithmarschen, A Medieval Peasant Republic is a useful reminder that resistance to feudal tyranny was more widespread and effective than is sometimes thought.
  • C. Rowell’s Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe, 1295 – 1345 provides a much needed and all too seldom presented pagan perspective.
  • Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky is a non-historical propaganda thriller that presents a Russian victory over fancifully imagined Teutonic knights. It bears a slight resemblance to a 13th century invasion of Novgorod and a Slavic victory fought on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus.

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