The thirteenth-century conquest of Livonia and Prussia by the Order of the Sword Brethren and its successor, the Teutonic Order, would not have been possible if the numerically weaker knights and crusaders had not enjoyed certain advantages over the heathen peoples. These included several innovations in military techniques, including the erection of permanent fortresses in stone or brick. The manufacture of bricks and mortar was unknown in the eastern Baltic region until then. The heathens defended themselves in fortifications and castles made of wood and surrounded by ditches and ramparts, mostly built on a hill, like Warbola (mod. Var- bola, Estonia) and Odenpāh (mod. Otepāā, Estonia), or near a lake or a river, like Arrasch (mod. Araiši, Latvia) and See- burg (mod.Jûrpils, Latvia), not far from Grobin (mod. Grobiņa, Latvia), formerly a Viking settlement.
These hundreds of wooden castles have not been preserved into the present, but excavations have shown that many of them were of a sophisticated construction, exploiting the advantages of the terrain. Examples include Terweten (mod. Tērvete, Latvia) and Mesoten (mod. Mežotne, Latvia) and Kernavè and Seimyniskèliai in Lithuania, the latter possibly identical with Voruta, the famous castle of King Min- daugas. The first small stone castle in the Baltic region was erected in 1185 in Üxküll (mod. Ikšķile, Latvia) by Meinhard, appointed first bishop of Livonia, who brought stonemasons for that purpose from Gotland. Later many more firm castles were built by the Order of the Sword Brethren, founded in 1202 and incorporated into the Teutonic Order in 1237, as well as by the archbishop, the bishops, chapters, and vassals.
In Prussia the Christian conquest began three decades later than in Livonia. As the Teutonic Knights initiated it by crossing the river Vistula and pressing forward into the Kul- merland in 1231, they made do with fortifications of timber and earth, like their pagan adversaries. After 1250, when these structures were partially built up as permanent defense installations or built anew, they all displayed irregular architectural configurations. Toward the end of the century, however, a fundamental transformation took place in which there arose walled castles made of stone or brick laid out in the form of a square; the first of these was the castle of Brandenburg in Prussia (mod. Ushakovo, Russia). The basic form of these structures most often displayed four wings, consisting of three floors each measuring up to 40-60 meters in length (131-197 ft.) and surrounding an enclosed court yard. This was the well-known convent-castle of the Teutonic Order in its classic form, a fine example of which is Rehden (mod. Radzyn, Poland) in the Kulmerland. It was the center of power of the order’s commandery (Ger. Kom- turei), since the administrator and commander resided within its walls together with his “convent,” which was made up of a body of knight brethren of the order.
Sources of inspiration for this typical form of castle built by the order may not only be found in faraway places but also in Scandinavia and the Baltic region. By the beginning of the thirteenth century the bishops of Livonia and the Order of the Sword Brethren were already building in geometrically ordered, strongly rectangular configurations, as seen at Üxküll and Holme (mod.Salaspils, Latvia), and also at Riga, Segewold (mod. Sigulda, Latvia), and Ascheraden (mod. Aizkraukle, Latvia).
While the Teutonic Order had been subject to foreign influence in Livonia and Prussia during the first decades of the fourteenth century, in the following decades the full formation of the convent castle configuration became a model of high quality and utility through which the order itself influenced Scandinavia and the Baltic regions. During the phase of stagnation in Prussia after the defeat of the order’s knights at the battle of Tannenberg (1410), this influential role was taken over by Livonia, where the order’s ideas about building were maintained and developed. In the fifteenth century the Livonian branch of the order built structures with large inner courtyards and powerful, round corner towers that followed developments in the art of war, such as mercenary armies and artillery. The only counterpart to this in Prussia was in the castle of Bütow (mod. Bytôw, Poland), built between 1393 and 1405. During the period of the Kalmar Union among Denmark, Norway, and Sweden (1397-1521), it was Livonia rather than Prussia that played an influential role in this part of the Baltic region.
The formation of Prussia into a political, administrative, economic, and military center of the Teutonic Order in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries created especially favorable conditions for the construction of castles there. As the Teutonic Knights advanced down the river Vistula, they first built strongholds at Thorn (mod. Torun, Poland) and Kulm (mod. Chelmno, Poland), under the protection of which German settlements were soon established. In 1233 the Christian army advanced into the Prussian district of Pomesania and founded Marienwerder (mod. Kwidzyn, Poland). During a campaign in 1237, the castle and town of Elbing (mod. Elbląg, Poland) were founded. Thereafter the order was no longer exclusively dependent on the overland route through Poland; Prussia could also be reached by sea from Lübeck. At Balga (mod. Veseloe, Russia) a stronghold was erected on the southern coast of the lagoon known as the Frisches Haff to protect the outlet. It was from such points on these waterways that the Teutonic Knights invaded the interior of Prussia.
Castles and other fortified sites in the Baltic Region
The settlement thus extended from west to east following, in a natural manner, the route taken during the occupation of the country. After western Prussia and the coastal district along the Frisches Haff had been pacified, the attack on Sam- bia (Ger. Samland) could be completed. This attack was prepared for on the Livonian side through the construction of the castle of Memel (mod. Klaipeda, Lithuania), a stronghold at the outlet of the Kurisches Haff into the Baltic Sea (1252). During a famous campaign in 1255, Sambia was occupied and a citadel built on the heights above the river Pregel, receiving the name of Konigsberg, literally “the king’s mountain” (mod. Kaliningrad, Russia), in honor of King Ottokar II of Bohemia who led the crusade. Thereafter Konigsberg became the most important castle and town in eastern Prussia as the starting point of military expeditions into Lithuania after 1283. Another important eastern castle was that of Ragnit (mod. Neman, Russia). The order always strove to conquer the pagan land of Samogitia, which separated Livonia from Prussia, in order to obtain an overland bridge between the two main territories of the order.
The castle of Marienburg (Malbork, Poland), headquarters of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. (Kevin Burke/Corbis)
The occupation of Prussia was not always a progressive endeavor, as the Teutonic Knights were sometimes defeated. Especially dangerous were rebellions of the native Prussians in 1243-1249 and 1260-1273, which only certain strongholds of the order were able to resist. By 1283, however, the order had firmly subjugated pagan Prussia.
In 1309 the order acquired by force the town of Danzig (mod. Gdansk, Poland) and the Christian land of Pomere- lia, which were thereafter divided into five large comman- deries and one advocacy (Ger. Vogtei). In the same year the grand master moved from Venice, where he had been resident since the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), to the fortress of Marienburg (mod. Malbork, Poland), which had been built around 1275 as a commandery castle. Thereafter Marienburg became the residence and headquarters of the Teutonic Knights. By 1350 a number of important castles had been erected in Pomerelia to protect it against Poland and the dukes of Pomerania, among them Schlochau, Konitz, and Tuchel. Also important were the four dioceses in Prussia. Of these, Warmia (Ger. Ermland) remained outside the possession of the Teutonic Order while the others (Pomesania, Kulm, and Sambia) were incorporated into it. The bishops and chapters, too, built large and significant castles in the style of the convent castles of the order, such as Heilsberg, Braunsberg, and Frauenburg in Warmia.
In Livonia the situation was considerably more complicated: there the Order of the Sword Brethren, and the Teutonic Order following it, not only had to resist the heathens, but also the Danes, the bishop (from 1255 archbishop) of Riga, and the bishops of Dorpat (mod. Tartu, Estonia), Curonia (which was later incorporated), and Osel-Wiek. Continuous squabbling and conflicts were the result. In addition to the castle at Riga, in 1237 the Teutonic Order took over the castles at Segewold, Wenden (mod. Cēsis, Latvia), Ascheraden, and Fellin (mod. Viljandi, Estonia) as well as some small strongpoints and bases. In 1346 the Teutonic Order bought Estonia from the Danes and thus acquired the important castles of Reval (mod. Tallinn, Estonia), founded by King Valdemar the Great in 1219, Weis- senstein (mod. Paide, Latvia), and Narva. Of particular strategic significance were the rivers Düna (Latv. Daugava; Russ. Dvina) and Aa, along which many strongholds were built by the bishop of Riga and the Sword Brethren by the beginning of the thirteenth century. This produced a chain of castles linking Dünamünde (mod. Daugavgriva, Latvia), Riga, Holme, Üxküll,Lennewarden (mod. Lielvārde, Latvia), Kokenhusen (mod. Koknese, Latvia), and Segewold-Trei- den-Wenden (all in mod. Latvia).
In the fourteenth century this Livonian castle network was solidified through the installation of new comman- deries of the Teutonic Order. The archbishop, bishops, and cathedral chapters vied with the order, also building strong castles. By the beginning of the fifteenth century there were 266 castles in Prussia and Livonia, including those of bishops, cathedral chapters, and vassals (castles of vassals existing only in Livonia). The Teutonic master of Livonia as well as the archbishop resided in Riga (the master in Wenden after 1480).
The strongholds were strategically placed in areas of military importance, most often along major river routes and roads that were, for preference, also suited to commerce and communications. Near them settlements arose. The castle could grant or restrict entrance into and passage through an area of land. It could be the starting point or finishing point of the conquest or the center of government of an area of land and its population. It was the place where a permanently armed detachment remained and resided, and also a place of refuge for people and cattle in cases of attack by the enemy. Castles protected the deployment and withdrawal of armies as well as trade and transport. They housed storage magazines for food, weapons, and munitions, and often workshops for the production of arms and armor. In the surrounding areas the important practices of horse breeding as well as cattle breeding and agriculture were conducted. The castle was also important as a center of command and as a meeting point for local military mobilization. For thirteenth- and fourteenth-century crusaders and for mercenaries in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the castles were natural communication zones and meeting places.
During the long-lasting war of the Teutonic Order with the Lithuanians, many wooden fortresses were built and soon also destroyed by both sides in the wilderness along the river Nemunas. They were often constructed within a few weeks in the summer during expeditions into enemy territory. Small “wilderness houses” were also built, from which reconnaissance against Lithuania was conducted. The first Lithuanian stone and/or brick castles, built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, were those of Vilnius (lower castle), Kaunas (old castle), Medininkai and Old Trakai(in mod. Lithuania), and Novogrudok, Kriavo, Lida, and Hrodno Gardinas (in mod. Belarus). In the middle of the fourteenth century the upper castle of Vilnius, the peninsular castle of New Trakai,and the new castle of Kaunas were erected. The famous island castle of Trakai was built a few decades later during the time of Grand Duke Vytautas (finished in 1409).
Another theater of war in the Baltic region was eastern Finland and Karelia, where the Swedes tried to gain control of the important Russian trade. In 1293 the mighty stone castle at Viborg (mod. Vyborg, Russia) was erected as an outpost against Novgorod. Two other early firm castles were at Åbo (mod. Turku, Finland), founded in 1280, and Tavaste- hus (mod. Hameenlinna, Finland). These and other castles along the coasts and in the interior of Finland served both military and administrative purposes, especially to withstand Russian attacks from Novgorod. Although the enemies were believers belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Swedes regarded military expeditions against them as crusades. The Novgorodians, on their part, erected a protecting chain of strongholds against their adversaries, including Korpor’e south of the Gulf of Finland (1297) and the island castle of Orekhovets in the River Neva near Lake Ladoga (1322/1323).