Post-classical history


The Polish contribution to the crusades to the Holy Land was limited, but Poland made significant contributions to crusades in the eastern Baltic region and against Turkish invasions in the Balkans. The crusade movement and military orders were known in the kingdom of Poland from an early date and remained a feature of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Crusades to the East, 1096-1221

Polish knights did not participate in the First Crusade (1096-1099), although Polish clerics took part in the Council of Clermont, at which the expedition to the East was proclaimed by Pope Urban II in 1095. A note about the capture of Jerusalem was included in the Annals of the cathedral chapter of Krakôw in 1099, which was later repeated by the other sources.

After the death of Prince Boleslaw III Krzywousty (1138), Poland suffered serious political crises, which ended in 1142-1146 with the exile of the senior prince, civil war, and the military intervention of Conrad III, king of Germany. During this time, Bernard of Clairvaux was initiating preparations for the Second Crusade (1147-1149). It is very probable that Wladyslaw II Wygnaniec, prince of Silesia, accompanied Conrad III to the East in 1147 in command of Polish knights, as reported by the Byzantine chronicler John Kin- namos. The majority of the German knights went with Conrad III to the Holy Land, but others organized a crusade against the pagan Slavs who inhabited the territory between the lower Elbe and the Oder. The troops of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony, and Conrad, duke of Zahringen, were supported by Danish and Polish magnates.

Prince Henry of Sandomierz, stepbrother of Wladyslaw Wygnaniec, went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1153-1154, fought under the leadership of King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, and came back with glory. He brought with him knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem and granted them landed properties and a church in Zagosc. This was the first convent of a military order to be established in Poland, and it was soon followed by others. Henry dedicated himself to the crusade movement and joined another action, organized by his brother Prince Boleslaw IV Kçdzierzawyagainst the heathen Prussians, during which he died (1166). The example of Henry of Sandomierz was followed by the magnate Jaxa of Miechôw, who in 1161-1162 went to Palestine, visited the Holy Places, and fought with his followers against the Muslims. He invited the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre to Poland and founded a monastery for them in Miechôw, which later became the main house of a separate congregation of the canons. Soon Polish landowners began to grant large amounts of land and other property to the new military and religious orders, which established their houses in almost every province: Silesia, Greater Poland, Cuiavia, Mazovia, Pomerania, and Lesser Poland (Pol. Malopolska).

The fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in October 1187 brought about calls for a new crusade to protect the rest of the Holy Land from the Muslims. The papal legate John Malabranca arrived in Poland in early 1189 to collect revenues for the crusade and to encourage Polish knights to participate in it. It is hard to estimate the number of Poles who went to Jerusalem, but certainly many more joined the crusade of Prince Kazimierz Sprawiedliwy (the Just) against the Jatvings, a pagan Baltic tribe, in 1192-1193. Only a few names of knights who participated in crusades are recorded in contemporary documents, for example, a certain Velizlaus Ierosolimitanus (Dzierzko, brother of Vit, bishop of Plock), who made his last will before departing for the Holy Land.

Pope Innocent III nominated Henry Kietlicz, archbishop of Gniezno, as his crusade envoy to the Polish church in the bull Quia maior issued in April 1213. In 1217 Innocent’s successor, Honorius III, appointed Archbishop Henry as leader of a Polish contingent that was to leave for the East. However, the Polish prelates and magnates preferred to fight against the Prussians, who had repeatedly invaded Polish territories, and asked the pope for release from the obligation to join the crusade. Few took part in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), in which they fought together with the Hungarian troops, but Pope Honorius III severely rebuked Prince Leszek (Lestko) the White in 1221 for failing to fulfill his crusader’s vow. Nevertheless, for the first time Poland participated in the general preparation for a crusade on a European scale and made a major financial contribution to it.

The Baltic Crusades

The territorial disintegration of Poland, together with numerous internal conflicts and foreign invasions, made the crusades in the Baltic region more attractive to Polish nobles, knights, and clerics. As early as 1140-1141 Henry Zdik, bishop of Olomouc in Moravia, who had made pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1123 and 1137, tried unsuccessfully to convert the pagan Prussians, in cooperation with the senior Polish prince, Wladyslaw II. Henry Zdik may have been following the example of the saint and martyr Adalbert (Vojtéch) of Prague, who died in Prussia in 997. In the winter of 1147-1148, Boleslaw Kçdzierzawy, who had ruled Mazovia since 1138, organized a crusade against the neighboring pagan Prussians, who had often attacked his lands.

The Prussians took their revenge in 1149, when they seriously devastated Mazovia.

The crusades in the Baltic region intensified in the 1170s. Danish, Swedish, and German missionaries and knights were active in Livonia and Finland. These actions prompted the Polish magnates to undertake a military campaign against the Prussians, conceived on a much broader scale than before. A Cistercian monk called Christian was consecrated as a bishop in 1216 and undertook the mission among the Prussians, supported by the knights and magnates. At this time the first convent of the Spanish Order of Calatrava was founded in Pomerania, which resulted in certain rivalry between lay and ecclesiastical powers over the Prussian mission. Bishop Christian received a bull from Pope Honorius III (3 March 1217), by which he was permitted to enlist crusaders against the Prussians; they were to receive the same privileges and indulgences as those going to the East. However, the pope also forbade Christian from recruiting those who had already promised to join the crusade to the Holy Land. In 1218 Honorius III issued new bulls, addressed to church officials in Poland as well as to the archbishops of Cologne, Salzburg, and Mainz, in which he encouraged everyone who was not able to fight in the Holy Land to join the Prussian crusade. He also strongly reprimanded those who wanted to attack those Prussians who had been baptized. Finally, in a bull of 15 June 1218, Honorius enjoined the archbishops of Mainz, Magdeburg, Cologne, Salzburg, Gniezno, Lund, Bremen, and Trier, as well as the bishop of Kammin, to recruit knights for a crusade against the Prussians.

As a result of these religious and diplomatic initiatives, an expedition led by Henry I, prince of Silesia, together with the Bohemian prince Dëpolt and Laurence, bishop of Breslau (mod. Wroclaw, Poland), went to Prussia. However, relations between Bishop Christian and the crusaders were not always amicable, and the pope had to grant protection to the bishop in subsequent bulls, insisting on the return of Prussian captives to Christian. Soon Henry I convinced Prince Lestko the White and Prince Conrad of Mazovia to join him in another expedition, in 1222. He also contacted the Teutonic Knights in Silesia, in a first attempt to attract them to the Prussian crusades. Before the crusade departed, Bishop Christian and other Polish prelates met with three powerful magnates in “Lonyz” (probably fowicz) to discuss the terms of cooperation between ecclesiastical and secular parties as well as plans for the military campaigns. The most intensive fighting in the Prussian-Mazovian and Prussian-Pomeran- ian borderlands occurred in summer 1223, but did not result in any significant military victory for either side. The further progress of the crusaders’ army was disturbed by the civil war in Greater Poland initiated by Prince Wladyslaw Odonic in fall 1223, but a defense line of wooden fortresses with garrisons efficiently protected Mazovia and Cuiavia from Prussian invasions until at least 1225. Thereafter the Polish princes, involved in civil war, paid little attention to the northern border. Pope Honorius III issued a bull (9 December 1226) addressed to Pelka, cantor of the cathedral chapter of Gniezno and future archbishop, permitting him to rescind the excommunication from anyone who agreed to join a crusade to the Holy Land or Prussia. The pope also nominated Pelka as preacher of the crusade within the archbishopric of Gniezno.

Around this time, Prince Henry I of Silesia and Bishop Gunter of Plock convinced Conrad of Mazovia to invite the Teutonic Knights to Poland and employ them in the conflict with the Prussians. The first knights arrived in 1228, and privileges were issued for them. In the same year Bishop Christian, abandoned by the princes, established his own military order, called the Knights of Christ, who received the castle of Dobrin (mod. Dobrzyn, Poland) from Gunter of Plock and other grants from Conrad of Mazovia.

One can observe a significant increase in donations to the military orders in the 1220s and 1230s in Poland. The Hospitallers and Templars established several commanderies and smaller houses, as did the Canons of the Holy Sepulchre. During the pontificate of Gregory IX (1227-1241), the mendicant friars (Dominicans and Franciscans) were active as crusade preachers, and Gregory also supported the activity of the Teutonic Knights who in 1230-1231 appeared in large numbers in the Kulmerland and in Prussia. At first they agreed to support Bishop Christian, but on 18 January 1230 the pope granted them a license to organize the crusade against the Prussians. In 1231 and 1232 the pope enjoined the local ecclesiastical hierarchy as well as Dominicans in Poland, Pomerania, Gotland, and Bohemia to support the Teutonic Order. He again revoked all ecclesiastical penalties on heretics and sinners if they joined the crusaders and granted a twenty-day indulgence to all who listened to a crusade sermon. In 1233 Gregory IX called on Jordan, minister general of the Dominican Order, to support the Prussian crusade and granted a twenty-day indulgence to those who helped build military sites.

Bishop Christian was captured by the Sambians in 1233, and soon the pope took direct control over the mission, but the Teutonic Knights now became the leading institution in the crusade against pagan Prussia. In 1235 they incorporated the relatively few Knights of Dobrin and obtained further privileges from the papal legate William of Modena. The Polish princes did not oppose the growing power of the Teutonic Knights, mainly because they were involved in another civil war in 1232-1234. When the war was over, the Teutonic Knights, Conrad of Mazovia, and other princes invaded Prussia (1234). In the following year, five Piast princes took part in a military campaign, and the Prussian troops were defeated in battle at the Dzierzgon River in February 1235. This great victory opened up Prussia to the Teutonic Knights.

Tensions between the papal and imperial courts resulted in the excommunication imposed in 1239 on Emperor Frederick II by Pope Gregory IX, who in February 1240 called upon all Christians for a crusade against the German ruler. Most of the Polish princes sided with the pope, but then they became involved in unexpected war with the Mongols, who invaded Hungary and Poland in 1241. Before his death (August 1241), Gregory IX granted the same indulgence as that received by crusaders to the East to those who supported King Béla IV of Hungary and other Polish princes after the defeats of the Christian forces at the battles of Mohi (11 April 1241) and Liegnitz (9 April 1241), thus turning the defensive war into a crusade. The withdrawal of the Mongol army put an end to further actions.

Disputes between the rulers of Pomerelia, the Teutonic Knights, and the Polish princes of Mazovia and Cuiavia were exploited by the Prussians, who rebelled against the invaders and regained control of the greater part of the conquered land in 1243. Prince Swietopelk (Swantopulk) of Pomerania supported the Prussians and attacked the Kulmerland and Cuiavia. In response the Teutonic Knights, together with Polish and Austrian troops, invaded Pomerelia in the winter of 1245-1246. Fighting continued until October 1247, when a cease-fire was agreed on.

Another plan for a crusade arose after Prince Boleslaw of Lesser Poland was defeated at the battle of Zaryszew, by the joint forces of Prince Conrad of Mazovia and the still pagan Lithuanians and Jatvings (1246). In 1247 Pope Innocent IV called on Archbishop Pelka and Bishop Prandota of Krakôw to organize a crusade in favor of Prince Boleslaw, but it was conducted in 1248 without great success. In 1253 Innocent sent his legate Abbot Opizo of Mezzano to Poland in order to organize a crusade against the Mongols and the Orthodox Russian prince Daniel of Galicia, but this action was equally unsuccessful. When King Ottokar II of Bohemia went on crusade to Prussia in winter 1254, his troops were supported by Polish knights.

Pope Alexander IV proclaimed new crusades against Lithuanians, Jatvings, and other pagans in August 1255 and addressed bulls to the clergy of Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria. The campaign finally started in winter 1247-1248, but by the summer of 1248 the pope ordered the crusaders to withdraw and insisted that the Franciscans should preach the Gospel by words and not by swords. A few years later, the Polish knights again had to fight against the Mongols (1260), a struggle that was reflected in crusade bulls of Alexander IV. From 1240 to 1260 only local crusades to Prussia were initiated by the papacy and undertaken by Polish knights and magnates, but rivalry among the princes of the Piast dynasty and other internal conflicts made these crusades largely unsuccessful.

The combined forces of the Teutonic Knights and the bishops of Prussia were defeated by the Samogitians on 13 July 1260 at the Durben River in Curonia, which led to a new Prussian uprising. The pope proclaimed a crusade and issued bulls in early 1261, but the crusaders were defeated at battles in Sambia and Natangia in January 1261. The crusade against the Prussians in 1261 was the last in this region in which Polish knights took part. The heavy fighting lasted until 1273 and ended with a final defeat of the pagan Prussians and the total subjugation of Prussia by the Teutonic Knights. They began an intensive colonization and urbanization of the conquered land, which was to change its social and national structure.

The Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

The Mongol invasion of Syria in the second half of the thirteenth century made a strong impression on contemporaries. Pope Urban IV, a former patriarch of Jerusalem, issued several bulls in which he called for a new crusade. He sent archdeacon Peter of Pontecorvo as his legate to Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland in order to supervise the preparations and collect money. In bulls of May and June 1262, Urban granted privileges to crusaders, but after his death (2 October 1264) arrangements were slowed down by his successor, Clement IV (1265-1268). Bishop Thomas I of Breslau (d. 1268) was a main promoter of the crusade in Poland at that time.

After the fall of the Latin Empire of Constantinople to the Greeks in July 1261, Urban IV addressed a bull to the prior of the Polish-Bohemian Dominican province, in which he described events in Constantinople and charged him with a mission to preach a new crusade. Yet instead of undertaking an expedition against Byzantium, the Polish troops supported King Stephen V of Hungary against the Cumans and Mongols in 1264-1265.

Pope Gregory X (1272-1276) summoned a church council in Lyons in the summer of 1274. He convinced several European rulers to participate in a new crusade, and the council accepted the crusade decree Constitutiones pro zelo fidei. The Polish ecclesiastical province was represented by Thomas II, bishop of Breslau (1270-1292), as well as Henry IV Probus, prince of Silesia (d. 1290), who also agreed to take part in the new expedition. A papal collector of crusade revenues began work in Poland and Hungary, but after the death of Gregory X plans were abandoned; in 1291 Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, surrendered to Khalil, the Mamlûk sultan. Prince Henry IV seized the crusade revenues collected at the Dominican convent in Breslau and was excommunicated in 1285. The fall of Acre was not noted by any contemporary Polish writers in annals or chronicles, in contrast to the capture of Jerusalem in 1099.

Knights Hospitallers from the Polish convents, which came under the authority of the Hospitaller prior at Prague, also participated in military actions from the island of Rhodes, where the headquarters of the Order of the Hospital was established after 1310. Significant financial support was also sent to Rhodes in 1480-1481 when the island’s capital was besieged by the Ottoman Turks.

The idea of the crusades was renewed (in modified form) in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially when the Polish rulers, some of whom were also kings of Hungary, were engaged in wars with the Ottoman Empire after its expansion into Europe. Wladyslaw III, king of Poland (1434-1444) and Hungary (1440-1444), was persuaded by Pope Eugenius IV, the papal legate Giovanni Cesarini, and the Hungarian commander John Hunyadi to join a crusade against the Turks and, despite several victories, died at the battle of Varna in November 1444. The elected kings of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also often appealed to ideas of the crusade when they conducted wars against the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century, for example, when King John III Sobieski went to the relief of Vienna in 1683. Crusade ideas were an important element in the culture of the Polish nobility of that period (also known as Sar- matian Culture), and were directly linked with the concept of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as the “bulwark of Christendom” (Lat. antemurale Christianitatis), defending the Christian world against the Muslim Turks and Tartars.

Crusade ideology was also noticeable in monastic and lay libraries. Dozens of manuscripts and early printed books have survived that contain various texts describing the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The military orders and clergy promoted certain religious cults, for example, of the Holy Sepulchre or relics of the True Cross. Even after the failure of the crusades, numerous Poles made pilgrimages to the Holy Places, including Peter Wysz, bishop of Krakôw (later of Poznan), and Ludwig II, prince of Liegnitz, both in the fifteenth century. Sometimes pilgrims produced memoirs, like those of Prince Nicolas Christopher Radziwill, which gained fame as a literary and historical work.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!