Post-classical history

Algirdas (d. 1377)

Grand duke of Lithuania (1345-1377) and major opponent of the Teutonic Order.

A few years after the death of his father, Grand Duke Ged- iminas (1341/1342), Algirdas (Ger. Olgerd, Pol. Olgierd, Russ. Ol’gerd) seized power with the help of his brother Kçstutis. Although he cooperated so closely with Kçstutis and other brothers or nephews that these are often called reges (kings) in the sources, Algirdas held supreme power in Lithuania. Through war and marriage alliances, he expanded his rule over the western part of Russia and most of present- day Ukraine. Tribute and soldiers from such conquests helped the pagan Lithuanians to resist the Teutonic Order’s crusade, and made Lithuania for a time the largest state in Europe. Algirdas often played a leading role in battles with the Teutonic Order and its allies, for example in 1345, when Lithuanian forces took the fortress of Mitau, and in 1348, when he and Kçstutis were defeated in the battle of Strèva. Despite successive marriages to Orthodox Russian princesses (Maria of Vitebsk and Juliana of Tver), Algirdas remained a pagan, characterized as evil and godless by the same Russian chroniclers who praised his intelligence and prudence. He allowed Latin and Greek Orthodox churches in Vilnius and encouraged Christian merchants, yet he did not permit insult to pagan ways or any questioning of his own power, attitudes that probably explain why he executed three Lithuanian converts to Greek Orthodox Christianity at his court.

Algirdas knew how to use diplomacy rather than force in matters of religion. He twice obtained from the patriarch of Constantinople a separate metropolitan of Lithuania for the Orthodox population of Lithuanian-ruled lands to counteract the pro-Muscovite policies of the metropolitan of Russia. In 1358 he negotiated with Emperor Charles IV about conversion to the Roman faith, but after obtaining useful peace treaties, he suddenly made new demands, refusing to convert unless the Teutonic Order ceded most of its lands in Prussia to Lithuania and transferred its activities to the Russian steppes. The baptism negotiations collapsed, probably as intended. When Algirdas died in 1377, he was cremated with grave goods and horses in grand pagan fashion. He had at least seven daughters and twelve sons, including Jogaila, who became king of Poland as Wladyslaw II Jagiello.

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