Post-classical history

Teutonic Order

The Teutonic Order (Ger. Deutscher Orden), also known as the Teutonic Knights, was one of the three great international military religious orders, alongside the orders of the Temple and the Hospital of St. John. It possessed houses and administrative structures in the Mediterranean countries, but it was mainly based in the Holy Roman Empire, from which most of its members were recruited.

The Origins of the German Hospital at Acre

The origins of the order date back to the foundation of a field hospital by German crusaders at the siege of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) around the year 1190 during the Third Crusade (1189-1192). When the siege ended in July 1191, the hospital was transferred into the city, where it found a site close to the Gate of St. Nicholas. In September 1190 Sibrand, the master of the German hospital, was granted the hospital of the Armenians in Acre by Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem.

Though this donation was never realized, the document recording it is the first relating to the order’s early history. Today there is a consensus that there was no personal or material connection with an older German hospital in Jerusalem that was incorporated by the Hospitallers in 1143. Yet one remaining problem concerning the hospital’s early history is presented by an account of its foundation given in a text known as the Narratio de primordiis ordinis Theutonici. Here two men named Konrad and Burchard are claimed as its founders and first masters: the account states that they had come to Jerusalem in the company of Duke Frederick V of Swabia, the younger son of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, and that they took over a temporary hospital from citizens of Bremen and Lübeck. However, these two (described as chaplain and chamberlain of the duke) were probably inserted into the story to stress the close relationship between the early order and the Staufen emperors, which lasted until the middle of the thirteenth century. Sibrand is most likely to have been the real founder of the hospital.

Sibrand’s successors Gerhard (1192), Heinrich (1193/ 1194), and perhaps Ulrich (1195) were probably priests, since Heinrich is referred to as a prior. Already during the time of Sibrand, a fraternity had been formed at the hospital, which was recognized and taken under papal protection by Clement III in February 1191. This fraternity received another papal privilege in December 1196 from Celestine III, who freed the brethren from the payment of the tithe from newly cultivated lands and gave them the rights to elect their own master and to bury people who were not members of the community. King Guy and his successor Henry of Champagne donated lands in Acre, Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), and Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) along with additional rights in the kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Formation of the Military Order

A new development was probably initiated by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who was planning a crusade when he died in Sicily in 1197. A first German contingent had already reached the Holy Land by this time, and when its leaders discussed the situation, together with the higher clergy of the Frankish states, in March 1198, they decided to ask the pope to allow the brethren to engage in warfare against the pagans. This request was granted by Innocent III in February 1199, who gave to the fraternity the Rule of the Hospitallers for their charitable tasks and the Rule of the Templars for their military activities. This was probably only a provisional regulation, since the brethren soon (at least after 1209) started to formulate their own customs (Lat. consuetudines). In 1244 Pope Innocent IV gave them permission to adapt some of their regulations in the light of the current problems of the order. This led to a final revision of the statutes, divided into a rule, laws, and customs, to which only some laws of the later grand masters were added. After 1199, the order consisted of knight brethren and priests, but there were also half-brethren (Ger. Halb- brüder or Graumantler) of nonnoble origin who took full vows, (half-)sisters, and friends of the order (Lat. famil- iares). The order took over the white mantle of the Templars but with a black cross, while half-brethren were dressed in grey.

Main areas of activity of the Teutonic Order

Main areas of activity of the Teutonic Order

The order was basically oligarchic. It was led by a master, who from the time of Hermann von Salza was termed “grand master,” literally “high master” (Ger. Hochmeister), probably to distinguish him from the “land masters” (Ger. Landmeister) of Prussia and Livonia. The master depended on the council of the most senior brethren and on the yearly chapters general (the assemblies of brethren in the East). Later, the chapters general met only rarely and were formed by the representatives of the order’s bailiwicks (Ger. Balleien) and houses.

Ruins of Montfort, headquarters of the Teutonic Order in the kingdom of Jerusalem. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

Ruins of Montfort, headquarters of the Teutonic Order in the kingdom of Jerusalem. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)

Soon other officials were introduced. The earliest known high dignitaries (Ger. Grossgebietiger) were in 1208 the grand commander (Lat.praeceptor, Ger. Grosskomtur), the marshal (Lat. marescalcus, Ger. Marschall), and the hospitaller (Lat. custos infirmorum, Ger. Spittler). The grand commander was the lieutenant of the master, responsible for provisioning and finance; the marshal had mainly military tasks, while the hospitaller was the director of the order’s main hospital. In 1228 a draper (Ger. Trappier) is mentioned for the first time; after 1240 there was a treasurer (Ger. Tressler), while the castellan of the order’s castle at Montfort near Acre, constructed in the 1220s, became equally important.

These offices were modeled on to the statutes of the Hospitallers. Unlike the earlier case of the Hospitallers, the militarization of the fraternity at the German hospital in Acre obviously met no resistance, though its first European donations were only concerned with hospitals. In May 1197 Emperor Henry VI donated the hospital of St. Thomas in Barletta, and donations of hospitals in Halle, Bolzano, and Friesach followed between 1200 and 1203. By 1209 the order had also acquired property in Tripoli, Antioch, Cilicia, Cyprus, and Greece, although not all donations were realized. Houses were founded in Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, which were subordinated to local commanders. A bailiwick as an administrative unit of several houses under a land commander (Ger. Landkomtur) is first mentioned for Sicily in 1212, and a German land commander in 1218. Other bailiwicks were soon instituted in Cilicia, Romania (i.e., Greece), Apulia, and Austria, then in Lombardy and Spain. When in 1236 the German land commander became the superior of another regional land commander, this was the beginning of the office of the German master (Ger. Deutschmeister), which, together with the later institutions of land masters of Prussia and Livonia, formed the highest level of the regional administration of the order.

Little is known of the first masters Heinrich (or Hermann) Walpot, Otto von Kerpen, and Heinrich Bart, but the fourth master, Hermann von Salza (1209/1210-1239), was very successful. He became one of the counselors of Emperor Frederick II, and at the same time managed to develop a close relationship with popes Honorius III and Gregory IX. Honorius III granted no less than 113 privileges to the Teutonic Knights, who in 1221 also received all the rights of the other military orders, thus finally becoming an international order of the church. Hermann was involved in Frederick’s crusade of 1228-1229, and he also successfully mediated the Treaty of San Germano (1230) between Frederick and Gregory IX.

The Order's Policies in the Thirteenth Century and Its Acquisitions in Hungary, the Holy Land, and the Baltic Region

As well as with the Holy Land, Hermann’s policies were concerned with eastern central Europe, first with southeastern Hungary (until 1225), and then with Prussia. In 1211, King Andrew II of Hungary, who was married to a German princess, gave the Teutonic Knights the region of Burzenland (mod. Tara Bîrsei, Romania) close to the territories of the heathen Cumans (Lat. terra Borza nomine ultra silvas versus Cumanos) in order to organize the defense of the area, to find (German) settlers, and to bring about the Christianization of the Cumans. A first contingent of the order arrived in 1212, but soon serious problems arose, since the queen was murdered in 1213 and the section of the Hungarian nobility that opposed the order’s engagement gained in influence. Thus the Teutonic Knights were driven out in 1218 and (after a short reinstatement in 1222) once again, this time finally, in 1225. Perhaps the order had attracted German settlers from the areas newly populated by the king’s predecessors, and probably it went too far in its efforts to gain political and ecclesiastical autonomy.

In the Holy Land, Hermann strengthened his position by his successful participation in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). Using a donation of 6,000 marks of silver by Duke Leopold VI of Austria, in 1220 he acquired the possessions of Otto and Beatrix of Henneberg (the heirs of Joscelin III of Courtenay): the so-called Seigneurie de Joscelin, mainly the barony of Toron with the castles of Banyas and Châteauneuf. This acquisition enabled him to start building the order’s main castle, Montfort, situated east of Acre, though Toron itself was never conquered from the Muslims. More property was acquired from the lords of Caesarea and Beirut after 1244. Lands purchased east of Beirut (1257/1261) were soon lost, but the order managed to establish its own small territory around Montfort until the Mamlûks devastated its surroundings in 1266 and finally took the castle in 1271. The Teutonic Knights became nearly as important for the weakened states of Outremer as the Templars and Hospitallers.

When Emperor Frederick II came to the Holy Land in 1228, having been excommunicated by Gregory IX, he was supported only by the Teutonic Knights. They were also involved in the military conflicts over the regency for the nominal king of Jerusalem, Frederick’s son Conrad IV. In the 1250s, the order, having large properties in Cilicia (Lesser Armenia), favored an alliance with the Mongols, like the crusade leader King Louis IX of France, while the Templars and Hospitallers opted for a military response. Together with the other military orders, the Teutonic Knights remained in Acre probably until 1291, though in 1290 Grand Master Burchard von Schwanden, who had gathered about 40 knight brethren and 400 crusaders to defend the Christian territories, resigned and left the order.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, the order was weakened by internal quarrels. After the deaths of Hermann von Salza (1239) and Konrad von Thüringen (1240), the brethren elected Gerhard von Malberg, who distanced himself from the emperor, was invested by Innocent IV with a ring, and took an oath of fidelity to the pope. When he came to the Holy Land, he was criticized for his financial policies and finally forced to resign early in 1244. During the intensified conflict between papacy and empire, the order was no longer able to maintain its neutral position, and different factions formed. Gerhard’s successor, Heinrich von Hohenlohe, had to travel to Rome to explain the order’s position, while Frederick II confiscated the order’s property in the kingdom of Sicily, only to return it on his deathbed (1250).

Meanwhile the order had established itself in the eastern Baltic region, in Prussia and Livonia. From 1230 onward following a call by Duke Conrad of Mazovia and helped by crusader contingents, the order succeeded in conquering the Kulmerland (the territory of mod. Chelmno, Poland) and the area east of the river Vistula from Thorn (mod. Torun, Poland) in the south as far as the Baltic coast in the north. Castles were built and towns were founded with the help of German settlers mainly from northern Germany and Silesia. When in Livonia the Sword Brethren, a military order founded by the bishop of Riga, suffered a heavy defeat by the Lithuanians at Saule, in 1237 the surviving Sword Brethren were incorporated into the Teutonic Order following an order by Pope Gregory IX. In contrast to Prussia, where the order succeeded in establishing an “order state” (Ger. Ordensland), government in Livonia was shared with other powers: the bishop (later archbishop) of Riga, the bishops of Osel-Wiek, Curonia, and Dorpat (mod. Tartu, Estonia), the town of Riga, and even the (secular) knights of the territories of Harria and Vironia in North Estonia, which the order bought from the Danish king Valdemar IV in 1346. But the order now became responsible for Livonia’s defense, also in the conflicts with the Russian principalities of Pskov and Novgorod. After the order’s defeat at the battle of Lake Peipus by the prince of Novgorod, in April 1242 the Prussians rose against the Christian mission.

Thus from 1242 to 1249 the order had to face a serious rebellion by the native Prussians (helped by the duke of Pomerelia), which only ended after mediation by a papal legate. Then, in the short interval before the outbreak of a second rebellion in 1260, there emerged the first signs of tensions between the order’s headquarters in Palestine and its distant branches. About 1251, the Grand Commander Eberhard von Sayn was sent to Prussia and Livonia as land master to reorganize the order’s structures there. He stressed that the order’s headquarters were in the Holy Land and that the brethren were not allowed to promulgate new regulations without the consent of master and chapter. The land masters had to submit written reports every year and to come to the central convent every three years. In the Holy Land, an important faction within the order sought to ensure that the master remained in the East. Thus in the time of Master Anno von Sangerhausen (1256-1273), statutes were passed according to which the master had to ask for permission of the chapter to return to the West.

Even after Montfort was lost in 1271, large sums of money were spent in extending the order’s properties around Acre. At the same time, the Prussian branch had to defend its lordship against the rebellious native Prussians, and it was only in 1283 that all heathen territories in Prussia were brought under the order’s control. Since men and money were needed in both Prussia and Palestine, opposing factions soon quarreled about the order’s future policies. After the resignation of Burchard von Schwanden, who adhered to the Palestine faction, in 1291 Konrad von Feuchtwangen, a member of the Baltic faction, was elected. When Acre was lost to the Mamlūks, the order’s headquarters were moved to Venice. This new site was of course an important starting point for crusading activities, but it was also closer to the Baltic region than was, for example, Cyprus, and Konrad clearly cared little about the situation in the Holy Land. This changed again with the next master, Gottfried von Hohenlohe (1297-1303), but the Palestine faction lost ground when it became clear that there would be no new crusade to the Holy Land in the near future. Finally, in 1309 Grand Master Siegfried von Feuchtwangen transferred the order’s headquarters to Marienburg (mod. Malbork, Poland) in Prussia.

The Grand Masters in Prussia and the Order's Role in Late Medieval Christianity

Siegfried von Feuchtwangen’s successor, Karl von Trier (elected 1311), also faced serious internal resistance; he was deposed in Prussia in 1317, reinstated at a chapter general in Erfurt 1318, and thereafter resided in his home town of Trier, where he died in 1324. Yet the decision of 1309 had a lasting impact. Far away from strong secular authorities such as the king of France, who had brought down the Templars, the Teutonic Order succeeded in building up its own territory in the Baltic region, based on a German settlement that had already started in around 1230 and that became more intensive after 1283, but also on a loyal native Prussian nobility that helped to organize the order’s lordship over the original inhabitants.

Teutonic Knights kneel to be blessed in a battle against the Russians, as imagined in the film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1938). (Mosfilm/The Kobal Collection)

Teutonic Knights kneel to be blessed in a battle against the Russians, as imagined in the film Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein (1938). (Mosfilm/The Kobal Collection)

It was in the time of Grand Master Werner von Orseln (1324-1330) that the later medieval structures took shape. The grand masters were supported financially by some of the Prussian commanderies and advocacies (Ger. Vogteien), while the high dignitaries were based in other commanderies: the marshal in Konigsberg (mod. Kaliningrad, Russia), the hospitaller in Elbing (mod. Elbląg, Poland), and the draper in Christburg (mod. Dzierzgôn, Poland), while the grand commander and treasurer remained in Marienburg.

After the final conquest of Prussia in 1283, the order turned against the still heathen Lithuanians, with the help of crusading contingents from all over Christian Europe. It was only the Polish-Lithuanian union of 1386 and the baptism of the Lithuanian ruler Jogaila (Pol. Jagieüo) that called the order’s policies into question and led to a series of conflicts, all of which were lost by the order. The first major defeat was that of Tannenberg (Grunwald) in July 1410, in which Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and about 300 knight brethren died. The immense indemnities that had to be paid to Poland and Lithuania caused internal conflicts, and the Ordensland was widely devastated, as it was in the following wars. Finally, after the Thirteen Years’ War (1454-1466), in which the Prussian estates (towns and knights) subjected themselves to Polish authority, the order lost two-thirds of its Prussian territories.

From the fourteenth century onward, the order concentrated its activities on the eastern Baltic area, but it also remained an international military order with houses in different parts of the Mediterranean regions. It received large donations in Castile from the 1220s (in La Mota near Valladolid, in Seville, Cordoba, and in the vicinity of Toledo), having somehow participated in the final phase of the Reconquista (the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims) after the campaign of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212).

Until the beginning of the fifteenth century, the order’s commanderies were mostly governed by German knight brethren, but in 1453 La Mota had a Spanish commander, Juan de la Mota. The order’s Spanish properties were lost during the Thirteen Years’ War, when it tried to sell rights and possessions outside La Mota. The situation was similar in southern Italy, where the order’s first donations by Emperor Henry VI (Barletta and La Magione in Palermo) were expanded up to the beginning of the fourteenth century; in 1260 Pope Alexander IV donated the Church of St. Leonard in Siponto (Apulia). Due to the financial problems of the proctor general at the Roman Curia—who was for some time after 1466 administrator of Apulia—and the behavior of the last land commanders, the bailiwicks in Apulia and Sicily were lost in 1483 and 1492, respectively.

In Frankish Greece, the order had received some lands in the west and south of the Peloponnese since 1209, though its center was in Mostenitsa in the north. But its position there was too weak to organize any effective resistance against the Turkish advance, and between 1397 and 1402 the order had to pay tribute to the Turks. In 1411 it tried to sell the bailiwick of Romania to Venice, but no agreement was reached. When the Byzantines of Mistra conquered the northwest of the Peloponnese between 1422 and 1432, Mostenitsa and other possessions were lost. Only its house in the Venetian possession of Modon in the south remained in the order’s hands, until the city was taken by the Turks in 1500.

Throughout the fifteenth century, different efforts were made to renew the order’s crusading activities. When Grand Master Konrad von Jungingen for a time won over Grand Duke Vytautas (Ger. Witold) of Lithuania and received Samogitia in the Treaty of Sallinwerder in October 1398, he also agreed to join a Lithuanian campaign against the Mongols of the Golden Horde. The army, which received a crusading bull from Pope Boniface IX, consisted of Lithuanians, Poles, rebellious Mongols, and about 300 men from Prussia, some knight brethren, and the commander of Ragnit, Marquard von Salzbach. When the army was heavily defeated near the Vorskla, a tributary of the Dnepr, in spring 1399, the alliance broke down, and the whole affair came to nothing.

After its defeat at Tannenberg, the order faced repeated criticism that it was not following its original aims and would not act against the Mongols and Turks. When Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary, asked for the order’s help against the Turks, Grand Master Paul von Rus- dorf agreed in 1429 to send out a contingent of six brethren led by Nicolaus von Redwitz, probably accompanied by Prussian craftsmen and soldiers. Sigismund gave them lands around Severin on the Danube where they were supposed to organize the defense of the border region near the area where the order had tried to establish itself 200 years earlier. Though in May 1430 the proctor general at the papal court was informed that the order had done well in Hungary, by 1432 the situation had deteriorated. The brethren were prevented by the Hungarian nobility from fortifying their castles, and they received no help when attacked by the Turks in the summer of 1432. Some of the order’s castles were lost, and many of its men must have died. Under very poor conditions, the brethren managed to hold out in three castles until 1434, but then the grand master decided to withdraw his halfhearted support.

After 1466 the order was involved in two Polish campaigns against the Turks. When in 1485 the Ottomans devastated Wallachia, the order’s contingent was too small to offer any substantial help and was sent back, but in 1497 Grand Master Hans von Tiefen came with some of the order’s officials, about 1,500 mounted men and their attendants, in all probably about 4,000 men. When they reached Lemberg (mod. L’viv, Ukraine), the grand master fell seriously ill, and he died on 25 August. The order’s dignitaries brought his body back to Prussia, but many of his men subsequently died in the heavy defeat suffered at the hands of the Turks.

While the position of the grand master and the central officials in Prussia was weakened by the defeats at the hands of Poland and Lithuania, the German and Livonian branches of the order gained substantial degrees of independence. Thus the German master Eberhard von Saunsheim opposed the peace treaty with Poland in 1435, while the Livonian brethren succeeded in securing a far-reaching autonomy from the early 1430s: at first, the grand master could choose the master of Livonia from two candidates presented to him by the Livonian brethren, but after 1466 he only had the option to confirm the future Livonian masters. These conducted their own foreign policy toward the principality of Muscovy, and in 1501 and 1502, respectively, Wolter von Plettenberg achieved two impressive victories against large Muscovite contingents at the Seritsa and Lake Smolina, which substantially contributed to the continued existence until 1561 of the Livonian “confederation” of the bishoprics, the order, the town of Riga, and the knighthood of Harria and Vironia. Meanwhile, the German masters became princes of the Holy Roman Empire in their own right in 1494 and concentrated on building up their own territory in the region of the Neckar.

After the death of Hans von Tiefen in 1497, the order decided to change its policies. With Friedrich von Sachsen (1498-1510) and Albrecht von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1511-1525), two princes of the Holy Roman Empire were elected as grand masters, in an effort to reform the order and to intensify support from Germany. Neither was very successful, though the Prussian conflict became more and more international. When Albrecht lost another war against Poland in 1519-1521 (the so-called Reiterkrieg), he returned to the empire, where he made contact with the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther suggested the secularization of the order and its territories, and thus after some negotiations Albrecht received Prussia as a fief dependent on the kingdom of Poland in April 1525.

The Order's Survival into the Modern Period

Yet this was not the end of the order’s history. The Livonian branch was secularized in 1561 under military pressure from Muscovy during events similar to those in Prussia, the last Livonian Master Gotthard Kettler becoming duke of Courland. The German branch survived attacks during the Peasants’ War of 1525 and was reformed by the German master Walter von Cronberg, who became administrator of the grand mastership in December 1527. He and his successors tried in vain to recover the order’s Prussian and Livonian territories.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the order became closely associated with the Habsburg dynasty. When at the diet of Regensburg in 1576 Emperor Maximilian II proposed that the order should take over and defend one of the castles on the borders of Hungary (with support from the empire), Grand Master Heinrich von Bobenhausen (15721585/1590) opposed the plan, still hoping to regain Prussia. The situation changed when one of the Habsburg princes, Maximilian, was received into the order and soon (1585) became coadjutor (i.e., lieutenant) of the aging grand master. After Bobenhausen resigned in 1590 and Maximilian became grand master (until 1618), he also took over the administration of Styria for the young archduke Ferdinand II. In this situation, the chapter general at Mergentheim decided to support the defense of Styria against the Turks with men and money (about thirty knights with seventy servants). The grand master continued with campaigns in Hungary and Croatia from 1595 to 1597, though he was not very successful. One of the knights of the order present in Maximilian’s campaigns was the later grand master Johann Eustach von Westernach (1625-1627), who in 1627 again proposed to the chapter general that the order should reconquer Prussia or take over one of the castles in Hungary. Neither scheme came to fruition, probably because of the consequences of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Germany, but at least the coadjutor for Grand Master Johann Kaspar von Ampringen and later Grand Master Ludwig Anton von Pfalz-Neuburg fought in the defense of Vienna in 1683 and in the campaigns against the Turks until 1687.

When Napoleon seized the order’s properties and its territory around Mergentheim in 1809-1810, Grand Master Anton Victor of Austria (1804-1835) was thrown back on the Austrian houses of the order. Thus the Teutonic Order under its grand and German master (Ger. Hoch- und Deutschmeister) became an order of the Austrian Empire. Finally, in 1923, the knightly branch of the Teutonic Knights was dissolved. Today the order consists of priests and sisters who are mainly engaged in charitable activities.

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