Post-classical history


A territory on the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea, roughly corresponding to northeastern Poland from Danzig (mod. Gdansk, Poland) as far as the western boundary of modern Lithuania, including the present Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Its original inhabitants were the Prussians, a people whose language (which died out in the seventeenth century) belonged to the same Baltic group as those of the Lithuanians and Latvians. The name “Prussia” was later taken over by the powers that ruled this area: the Teutonic Order and its secular successor states, the duchy of Prussia (from 1525) and the kingdom of Prussia (from 1701).

The name Prussia is first mentioned in the writings of the Jewish traveler Ibrâhim ibn Yâqûb (965/966), but a previous report to King Alfred the Great of England by the traveler Wulfstan stated that the country (which Wulfstan called Estonia) was filled with castles, each in the hand of a kynig (king). Later tribes were formed. According to the Latin chronicle of Peter von Dusburg, there were the Pomesani, Pogesani, Warmienses, and Galindite in the west and south, and the Sambite, Nattangi, Barthenses, Sudowite, Nadrowite, and Scalowite in the north and east. They followed a pagan religion that resembled that of the ancient Germans and formed a common cult for all the tribes. They worshipped idols, and there were professional propagators of the cult, known in Latin as tulissones and ligaschones.

The Prussian Mission and the Early Crusades

The Christianization of the Prussians was attempted as early as the end of the tenth century. In 997, the bishop of Prague, Adalbert (Cz. Vojtëch), tried to convert them but was killed, possibly near modern Elbląg or in the district of Sambia in the north. Adalbert’s mission was followed by that of Bruno of Querfurt, who also failed, dying as a martyr in 1009. The Prussian mission was not resumed until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In 1141, Henry Zdik, bishop of Olomouc in Moravia, received a papal license to preach the gospel to the still pagan Prussians, but little evidently resulted from this. A fresh effort began in 1206, when Pope Innocent III allowed the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Lekno in Poland to follow his plans for Christianizing the Prussians.

The state of the Teutonic Order in Prussia

The state of the Teutonic Order in Prussia

The early history of the mission is far from clear. The abbot of Lekno encountered resistance from his own order, but probably after his death two of his monks, Christian and Philip, continued the enterprise. They evidently received support from the princes of the region, since in 1212 the pope admonished the dukes of Poland and Pomerelia not to burden the newly converted too heavily, for fear that they might return to their pagan beliefs. After the death of Philip, Christian was consecrated by the pope as the first bishop of the Prussians in about 1215. He received donations from Christian princes, but it is uncertain whether donations were made by the Prussians. There were disputes between the newly converted Prussians and those who remained heathen, and finally the Prussians turned to military resistance. In consequence, in 1217 Pope Honorius III extended crusade privileges to all those who were willing to fight on the side of Bishop Christian, and crusades took place in 1222 and 1223, with participants from Germany and Poland, partly joined by the dukes Henry of Silesia, Conrad of Mazovia, and Swantopulk and Wartislaw of Pomerelia. These met little success, and in fact the Prussians reacted with fierce attacks on Mazovia and Pomerelia, where the Cistercian monastery at Oliwa was destroyed in 1224 and 1226.

Map of Prussia and neighboring areas. East is shown at the top. Woodcut from Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia, 1550. (Courtesy Alan Murray)

Map of Prussia and neighboring areas. East is shown at the top. Woodcut from Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia, 1550. (Courtesy Alan Murray)

In this situation, the call for the foundation of a military order may have been the last resort. Perhaps following a suggestion by the Cistercians, in 1228/1230 the Spanish military Order of Calatrava was called upon to settle at Thymau (mod. Tymawa, Poland) near Mewe by Swantopulk, duke of Pomerelia, and about the same time Duke Conrad of Mazovia and Bishop Christian founded the Order of Knights of Dobrin (Lat. Milites Christi de Prussia). This new order became active when fifteen brethren from northern Germany gathered at Dobrin (mod. Dobrzyn, Poland), but they achieved little other than managing to defend their own castle. In 1235, they were absorbed by the Teutonic Order.

The Arrival of the Teutonic Order and the Establishment of Bishoprics

It was in fact probably the Teutonic Order that received the first appeal for help from Duke Conrad, shortly after the Prussian attacks, in 1225/1226. If the conventional dating (March 1226) of the document is correct, the Teutonic Knights first secured imperial support for their involvement in Prussia by the Golden Bull of Rimini, in which Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, granted the order territorial rights similar to those of a prince of the empire in the yet-to-be- conquered Prussian territories. By 1228 at the latest, the order had received several donations from Duke Conrad, especially the territory of Kulm (mod. Chelmno, Poland), and also Orlow and Nessau south of the river Vistula (Ger. Weichsel, Pol. Wisla), which served as starting points for the order’s campaigns.

The order’s intervention in Prussia was evidently delayed by the crusade of Frederick II to the Holy Land (1228-1229), but first contingents led by Hermann Balk, the first Teutonic master of Prussia, arrived in 1230. From 1231 the order, supported by crusaders, advanced along the Vistula. Towns and castles were founded, notably Thorn (mod. Torun, Poland) in 1231, Kulm in 1232, Marienwerder (mod. Kwidzyn) in 1234, and Elbing (mod. Elbląg) in 1237. For the towns, the order succeeded in winning settlers from Germany, who were granted wide-ranging privileges, as in the Kulmer Handfeste (the town charter for Kulm and Thorn, 1232/ 1233), afterward extended to the whole territory of Kulm. The burgesses of Kulm and Thorn were allowed to elect their own judges, granted the right of free inheritance for their properties, and assured a regular system of coinage and measures, while the towns received extensive lands and rights along the Vistula.

At first, the order’s advance took place in competition with Bishop Christian, who in 1231 was only willing to give the order one-third of the conquered territories. This changed when the bishop was captured by the Prussians around 1233 and remained prisoner until 1238. In 1234 Pope Gregory IX confirmed the order’s possession of all the lands already and still to be conquered, took its properties under papal protection, and freed it from any other (i.e., imperial) authority. While the pope admonished the knights to guarantee the personal freedom of the newly converted Prussians, he reserved to himself the development of an ecclesiastical structure. This was regulated by papal bulls of 1236 and 1243, and in July 1243, the papal legate William of Modena divided the Prussian bishopric into four dioceses: Kulm, Pomesania, Warmia (Ger. Ermland), and Sambia (Ger.Samland). Bishop Christian was given a choice of the new bishoprics but evidently had not responded by the time he died.

In 1245 Pope Innocent IV appointed Albert Suerbeer as archbishop for Prussia and Livonia (eventually becoming resident in Riga), but Albert soon came into conflict with the order concerning the nomination of the Prussian bishops. In Kulm, the Dominican Heidenreich (1246-1264) successfully took office, but other Dominican bishops were rejected by the order, especially in Pomesania and Sambia, where it favored Franciscans. When Heidenreich died and was succeeded by a priest of the Teutonic Order, Friedrich von Hausen, the newly founded cathedral chapter at Kulmsee (mod. Chelmza, Poland) soon adopted the rule of the Teutonic Knights, and, in consequence, only priest brethren of the order were elected as bishops. This model was soon transferred to Pomesania and Sambia, where cathedral chapters had already been established with priest brethren in 1285 and 1294, respectively. Only in Warmia was there a succession of bishops who were not members of the Teutonic Order and thus not dependent on its leadership.

The Prussian Resistance and the Final Christianization of Prussia

When William of Modena divided up the Prussian bishopric, its Christianization was still far from being accomplished. Since 1237 the Teutonic Knights had also been responsible for the defense of Livonia, as a result of their incorporation of the remnants of the Sword Brethren after the heavy defeat of that order by the Lithuanians at Saule. Thus the Teutonic Knights also inherited a conflict with the Russian principalities of Pskov and Novgorod. When they were defeated at the battle of Lake Peipus by Alexander Yaroslavich (Nevskii), prince of Novgorod, in April 1242, this was probably the impulse for the native Prussians to renew their opposition to the Christian mission. This time they were supported by Duke Swantopulk, who invaded the order’s territories but was soon repulsed with the help of the dukes of Mazovia and Greater Poland. Nevertheless, from 1243 the order lost most of the countryside to the rebellious Prussians. While a first contingent of (mostly Austrian) crusaders failed, the situation changed when Grand Master Heinrich von Hohenlohe came to Prussia in 1246. The castle at Christburg (mod. Dzierzgôn, Poland) was recovered and fortified, and the Prussians and Pomerelians were defeated.

When James of Liège arrived in Prussia as papal legate, he was in a position to mediate the peace treaty of Christburg (7 February 1249). Although they had been defeated, the Prussian tribes involved in the fights (mainly the Pomesani, Poge- sani, Warmienses, and Nattangi) were treated as equals. They were granted the same personal freedom as the settlers coming from the West, and were also allowed to join the clergy or to become knights. The Prussians promised to build several churches, which were to be endowed by the order. But since their rights were “the liberty of the children of God,” they were to lose everything if they returned to their former pagan beliefs. This charter of liberties may have been a reaction to papal reproaches concerning the Prussian mission of the order. But the Treaty of Christburg perhaps also reflected the plans of the Roman Curia, in which the Teutonic Knights were to take over a leading role in the crusades against the Mongols, for which they had to be freed from the war against the Prussians. Crusading against the Mongols in Prussia and Livonia was preached according to bulls of Innocent IV and Alexander IV, but when the first crusading contingents had gathered in the south of Prussia, they had to be employed against the second rebellion of the Prussians in 1260.

In 1249 the order had started a new campaign against those Prussians who remained heathen, and in 1250, 1251, and 1253-1255, it received support from large crusading contingents, at first led by Margrave Otto III of Brandenburg and Count Heinrich of Schwarzburg, then by King Ottokar II of Bohemia. Thus the Teutonic Knights succeeded in extending their territories toward the south and east, and in 1253, under military pressure, even the Lithuanian prince Mindaugas accepted baptism, was crowned king by Bishop Heidenreich of Kulm, and granted the territory of Samogi- tia to the order, thus giving it the land connection between its two Baltic territories of Prussia and Livonia. However, internal opposition forced Mindaugas to change sides and to support the Samogitians.

In July 1260 Burchard von Hornhausen, master of Livonia, and Marshal Heinrich Botel invaded Samogitia with crusaders and contingents from Prussia and Livonia. When in the ensuing battle at Durben both leaders and about 150 knight brethren died, the defeat gave rise to a second Prussian rebellion, which mostly concerned the northern parts of Prussia, but not the territory of Kulm and Pomesania. The Prussians soon conquered the countryside and also some of the order’s castles, and were not even repulsed by crusaders led by Counts William of Jülich and Engelbert of Mark. When Pope Clement IV renewed the crusading privileges in 1265, several crusade armies followed, including those led by Otto III of Brandenburg and once again by King Ottokar II of Bohemia. But it was only the victory of Margrave Dietrich II of MeiBen against the Nattangi in 1272 that turned the scales in the order’s favor. After 1274, the knights concentrated on subjecting those Prussian areas that they had not controlled before. This was finally accomplished in 1283, when the Sudowite accepted baptism and the order’s authority.

The "Order State" and the Lithuanian Crusades

This was not the end of crusading in Prussia, but it did mark significant changes. From now on, the order could firmly base its crusading policies on Prussia, with its multiethnic population. After 1308, the order’s territorial basis was even extended by the occupation of Pomerelia (later known as West Prussia), which was also claimed by the renewed Polish kingdom, leading to a judicial and military conflict that ended only in 1343 with the Treaty of Kalisz.

The commanderies of the order, that is the castles and houses with a commander, a certain number of brethren, and several servants and personnel, were organized as administrative units with their own military contingents. These consisted of German settlers, who populated the newly founded towns and the Prussian countryside; of Prussian peasants and the (lower) Prussian nobility, who lived mostly undisturbed on their own lands; and also of Polish nobles. The commanders were responsible for the local settlement policy, the jurisdiction in their districts, and the finances and economy of their houses. Below the rank of the commanders, a hierarchy of officials was established, who also had responsibilities for their own smaller districts: they included the offices of advocate (Ger. Vogt), administrator (Ger. Pfleger), master of fisheries (Ger. Fischmeister), master of forests (Ger. Waldmeister), and others.

When in 1309 the order’s headquarters were transferred from Venice to the Prussian castle of Marienburg (mod. Mal- bork, Poland), a process that was only completed in about 1325, it became the center of a “state of the Teutonic Order” (Ger. Ordensland), whose grand masters were regarded as princes by the rulers of western Europe. The Marienburg turned into a residence for the grand master and his court, as well as a convent with a large number of knight and priest brethren. The order’s central administration was reorganized, with the five high dignitaries (Ger. GroBgebietiger: grand commander, marshal, hospitaller, draper, and treasurer) now being based in Prussia itself.

Samogitia (the northwestern part of still heathen Lithuania) had already been at the center of the order’s attention in the 1250s, and became so again after 1283. In 1289 Mein- hard von Querfurt, the master of Prussia, founded the castle of Ragnit on the River Nemunas, which he used as a base for attacks on the Lithuanian castles in that area. One of its commanders, Ludwig von Liebenzell, was even in a position to raise tribute from the Samogitian nobles. At that time, the order started a series of reysen (military campaigns) against the Lithuanians, of which no fewer than twenty took place from 1300 to 1315. From 1336 these were organized annually, with campaigns often in both summer and winter, increasingly involving participants from the entire European nobility. Thus between 1334 and 1387, all male members of the comital dynasty of Namur went to Prussia, as did many French nobles, such as Pierre I, duke of Bourbon, in 1344-1345, and the famous Marshal Boucicaut (Jean II le Meingre), in 1384-1385 and 1391-1392. There were many crusaders from England, such as Henry, earl of Derby (the future King Henry IV), in 1390-1391 and 1392, while many others came from Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, Scotland, the Low Countries, and Poland. The famous combatants were chosen by heralds and given places at a Table of Honor (Ger. Ehrentisch).

This permanent crusade, like nearly all medieval warfare, consisted mainly in destroying villages, harvests, towns, and castles, and in killing opponents and taking prisoners, but it was not particularly effective, since the Lithuanians responded in the same fashion. Many castles were built by the order, even close to the main Lithuanian stronghold at Kaunas, but most of them soon had to be abandoned. Offers to accept baptism by Lithuanian grand dukes such as Gediminas or Kçstutis were little more than diplomatic maneuvers.

The Decline and Secularization of the "Order State"

It was only the dynastic union with Poland that brought about the Christianization of Lithuania in 1386. On the one hand, the order continued the reysen against Lithuania well into the fifteenth century, even though the baptism of Grand Duke Jogaila (king of Poland under the name Wladyslaw II Jagiello) was accepted by Pope Boniface IX as well as by Wenceslas IV, king of the Romans. On the other hand, the order attempted to split the Polish-Lithuanian union by supporting opponents of Jogaila. Despite several diplomatic efforts (such as a peace treaty in 1404), war finally broke out. In August 1410 the order suffered a major defeat in the battle of Tannenberg (Grunwald), in which Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen (1407-1410) and about 300 knight brethren were killed. Though the Polish king could not take the Marienburg (which was defended by Heinrich von Plauen) and had to withdraw, the order had to pay a considerable indemnity, mainly as a ransom for the prisoners, brethren, and mercenaries alike. The ensuing debates about taxes (mainly in 1411 and 1412-1413) and about the form of government in a time of crisis (the order also lost subsequent wars against Poland and Lithuania) led to increasing dissatisfaction and mistrust on the part of the estates, the (German) citizens of the towns, and the (German and Polish) rural nobility.

The greater towns in Prussia were members of the Hanseatic League and had become rich through long-distance trade, while the knights and esquires, especially of the Kulmerland, had developed into a well-organized community with a corporate identity. Since the later fourteenth century, the estates met in diets where they brought forward complaints and voiced criticism against the order. Finally, in March 1440, the towns and nobility formed the Prussian Union (Ger. Preufiischer Bund). When Grand Master Ludwig von Erlichshausen (1450-1467) and the order’s leading officials secured the formal abolition of the Prussian Union by Emperor Frederick III in December 1453, the estates revoked their oath of fidelity and turned to the king of Poland. Though the contingents of the estates soon conquered most of the order’s castles, the order succeeded in bringing in mercenaries, and also had support from some of the smaller towns, many (native) Prussian nobles, and some of the princes of the Empire. This was the beginning of the Thirteen Years’ War (1454-1466), in which the order finally lost two-thirds of its territory.

After the Second Peace of Thorn (1466), the income of the order was greatly reduced, so that large parts of its lands had to be given away to the former mercenaries in lieu of payment. Families such as the Dohna, Schlieben, or Eulenburg settled in Prussia and formed a new nobility, while the order’s officials became part of the estates present in the high court from 1506/1507. After Grand Master Martin Truchseh failed to win back the order’s territories from Poland in the war of 1477-1479 and Grand Master Hans von Tiefen died on campaign against the Ottomans in 1497, the order’s high officers tried to strengthen its position in Prussia by electing in turn two princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Friedrich von Sachsen (1498-1510) and Albrecht von Brandenburg- Bayreuth (1511-1525). Both soon discovered that their Prussian resources were too weak to revise the Second Peace of Thorn, and Albrecht finally decided to secularize his Prussian territories, which became a duchy held as a fief from the king of Poland in 1525.

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