Grand duke of Lithuania (1392-1430), who broke the power of the Teutonic Order and brought medieval Lithuania to the peak of its might.
Vytautas (Germ., Pol. Witold, Russ. Vitovt) was born around 1350, the son of Kçstutis, duke of Trakai, and Birute of Palanga. He was meant to succeed his father in Trakai and to co-rule the grand duchy of Lithuania with Jogaila, the son of Grand Duke Algirdas. But after Algirdas died, the Teutonic Order provoked a conflict between Kçstutis and Jogaila. In 1382 Kçstutis was murdered, but Vytautas managed to escape to Prussia. There he persuaded the Teutonic Order to wage war against Jogaila in his favor. In 1384 Vytautas was received into the Roman Catholic Church (taking the baptismal name Wigand) and granted the order the strategic western Lithuanian territory of Samogitia, which lay between the order’s possessions in Prussia and Livonia. But soon Jogaila offered him peace, and Vytautas returned to Lithuania, receiving Grodno and later, Lutsk. Vytautas converted to the Orthodox form of Christianity, but when Jogaila was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith on becoming king of Poland (1386), Vytautas also converted back to Catholicism (with the new name Alexander). However, as Jogaila failed to keep his promise to return Trakai, Vytautas fled to Prussia again in 1390 and fought against Jogaila with the help of the Teutonic Order until peace was concluded. In 1392 Jogaila was forced to recognize Vytautas as grand duke of Lithuania.
In 1398 Vytautas granted Samogitia to the Teutonic Order again, in the hope of gaining a respite from its attacks. He also tried to exploit the idea of the crusade by applying its ideology to his own war against the Mongols of the Golden Horde, but his crusade ended in defeat at Vorskla (1399). Then Vytautas organized a Samogitian rebellion (1401). The struggle was complicated by wars in Rus’, and in 1404 Vytautas had to give up his claims on Samogitia once more, but in 1409 he organized a new rebellion and finally succeeded in liberating Samogitia. Next year Vytautas and Jogaila marched on Prussia, and at the battle of Tannenberg (15 July 1410) they inflicted on the Teutonic Order its greatest ever defeat. In 1411 the order conceded Samogitia to Vytautas for his lifetime, although he sought a permanent recognition of his possession, claiming that Samogitia was “our heritage and patrimony... which is and always was one and the same with the land of Lithuania due to the same language and the same people” [Codex epistolaris Vitoldi, magni ducis Lithuaniae, 1376-1430, ed. Antoni Prochaska (Cracoviae: Academia Literarum, 1882), p. 467].
As the dispute over Samogitia continued, Vytautas and Jogaila strengthened the Lithuanian-Polish alliance, formal izing it through the Union of Horodlo (1413); they imposed Christianity on Samogitia (1413) and established a diocese there.
Vytautas also gave support to the Hussites and was elected king of Bohemia (1421-1423), thus preventing Emperor Sigismund from providing active support for the Teutonic Order. In 1422 Vytautas and Jogaila attacked Prussia again and forced the final recognition of Samogitia as a Lithuanian possession. Thereafter Vytautas’s relationship with the order improved, as he sought to rid Lithuania of Polish suzerainty. In 1429 Emperor Sigismund offered to have Vytautas crowned as king of Lithuania, but this overture was undermined by the Polish nobility. Vytautas died on 27 October 1430. He was succeeded by Svitrigaila, brother of Jogaila.
Vytautas was married twice: to Anna (d. 1418), then to Juliana, both of Lithuanian origin. His daughter from the first marriage, Sofia, married Grand Duke Vasilii I of Moscow.