Post-classical history


Frontier Crusades 2: the Baltic and the North

‘They shall either be converted or wiped out.’1 So Bernard of Clairvaux announced the extension of Jerusalem indulgences to the summer campaign of 1147 against the pagan Slavs, or Wends, between the rivers Elbe and Oder. This decision, reached at the Diet of Frankfurt in March 1147, set the tone for perhaps the most radical and effective association of holy war and territorial expansion. Crusading in the Baltic touched the destinies of every region east of the Elbe in a great arc stretching along the coast eastwards and northwards to Livonia, Estonia, Finland and the Gulfs of Finland and Bothnia. Bernard’s analogy with wars fought for the Holy Land of Palestine provided ethnic cleansing, commercial exploitation and political aggrandizement with a religious gloss, a potent, lasting and, for some, sincerely believed justification for the cruel process of land-grabbing, Christianization and Germanization that brought the pagan communities of the eastern and northern Baltic littoral into the pale of Christianity and western European culture.


Yet Bernard had not invented the religious excuse for conquest in the Baltic. He had been anticipated by the Magdeburg appeal of 1108, encouraging support for an attack on the Wends, probably composed by a Flemish clerk in the archbishop’s household. The campaign being urged was to liberate ‘our Jerusalem’, an ambiguous reference to the vulnerable Christian lands along the Elbe frontier and the lost ecclesiastical provinces beyond, briefly established by the tenth-century Ottonian kings of Germany before being abandoned after the Slav rising of 983. This challenging analogy prefigured the way crusading influenced


20. The Baltic

German eastward expansion by exploiting the new impetus and definition given to holy war by the eastern Jerusalem campaigns in emphasizing the need to defend all Christian frontiers and by implying that, in the Baltic, as in Palestine, the battle was for the recovery of Christian lands. In a mood of realism no less prophetic of the future Baltic crusades, the Magdeburg clerk augmented these emotional triggers and legal niceties with the harsher attractions of blatant materialism and spiritual reward:

These gentiles are most wicked, but their land is the best, rich in meat, honey, corn and birds; and if it were well cultivated none could be compared to it for wealth of its produce… And so, most renowned Saxons, French, Lorrainers and Flemings and conquerors of the world, this is an occasion for you to save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live. May He who with the strength of his arm led the men of Gaul on their march from the far West in triumph against his enemies in the farthest East give you the will and power to conquer those most inhuman gentiles who are nearby and to prosper well in all things.2

The material greed of Christian Saxon lords in their dealings with the pagan Slavs stood as an uncontested if lamented commonplace amongst even the most sympathetic regional Christian apologists.

As much as in the Christian territories of the region, religion helped define cultural, social and political identity across the frontiers in the pagan lands that stretched along the Baltic shore to the Gulf of Finland and beyond. Although subdivided into numerous principalities, tribes or groups of extended families, the most prominent general division among the pagan peoples remained linguistic. Between Kiel and the Vistula lived the western Slavs, known to the Germans and Scandinavians as Wends, related but distinct from the Slavic Poles, Russians and Czechs and the Sorbs to the south and east. Among the Wends, tribal and political groups were sustained by an organized and resilient polytheist religion run by an ordered and powerful priesthood presiding over a network of regional cults and a system of rich local temples stocked with images and idols. Wendish paganism was closely bound up with the tensions between rural territorial princes and the market and trading towns, mainly on the coast, whose religious affiliations reflected often competitive aspirations for autonomy and power. To the Germans and Danes, Wendish princes and towns displayed recognizable political structures and habits. This was less the case further east. From the Vistula to the Dvina and up to the shores of the Gulf of Riga, the Balts were divided into four separate peoples: Prussians, Lithuanians, the Latvians and Curonians. Within these ancient tribal groups, political and religious authority operated on a smaller, less centralized scale than among the Wends. The power of local chiefs depended on their ability to organize the warrior aristocracy of their areas; to dominate the agricultural population from behind substantial earthworks rather than creating settled rural estates; and to exploit an array of fertility cults revolving around numinous places, plants, animals and the dead as well as gods. The tenacity and continued vibrancy of the paganism of the Balts testified to its importance to social and political cohesion. From the Gulf of Riga and Estonia into the Gulf of Finland and beyond were settled a range of Finno-Urgian-speaking communities, some of which existed on the very fringes of settled cultivation. Social structure rested on extended families, who combined when economically or militarily necessary into larger, although still very localized, political associations. The harshness of the environment imposed an intimacy with nature reflected in the religious cults, which helped explain the natural world and offered a chance to mitigate its severity.

Although nothing seems to have come from Magdeburg’s isolated exhortation, the Wendish crusade of 1147 emerged from an indigenous German context that displayed growing interest in fusing political, ecclesiastical and religious aggression. Despite John of Würzburg’s gloom at the lack of German prominence in Palestine in the 1170s, interest in holy war penetrated German lands as much as those further west.3 The Emperor Henry IV had toyed with at least a pilgrimage and possibly a military expedition to Palestine in 1103–4. Twenty years later Conrad of Hohenstaufen, the future Conrad III, campaigned in the Holy Land.4 The ideology of holy war, even if imported by westerners such as the Flemish clerk at Magdeburg, soon infected German literature as much as politics, with such familiar epic figures as Roland appearing in the unmistakable guise of a crusadingmiles Christi.5 On the German – Slav borderlands, the early twelfth century saw an escalation in conflict over religious and ecclesiastical orientation. Religious observance defined communal identity and political authority on both sides of the shifting frontiers. Conquerors, such as the Christian Boleslav III of Poland (1102–38) in Pomerania, regional lords, such as the Pomeranian princes who accepted baptism in the 1120s, or local rulers, such as Henry, the Christian lord of the pagan Wendish Abotrites (d. 1127), used or embraced Christianity and Christian mission to assert their power, in particular over urban elites wedded to a thriving and wellorganized paganism. Much of the progress of Christianity between the Elbe and Oder valley revolved around the subjugation of independent towns, with their civic cultic shrines and priesthood, to a more amenable church structure run by prelates and priests sponsored and employed by the landed princes. The evangelism of Bishop Otto of Bamberg in Pomerania in 1124 and 1127 involved the violent destruction of pagan temples and the submission of cities such as Stettin.6

The new God was unambiguously a German God, His success accompanied by German settlers. Rejection of political subjugation was expressed in religious opposition. Henry of the Abotrites, his rule buttressed by German and Danish mercenaries, having himself converted, allowed Saxon missionaries to lay waste Wendish cultic shrines in his territories. With the Christian priests came the prospect of church taxes, land-grabbing and a loss of political and economic as well as ecclesiastical autonomy. However strong the private or corporate devotional ties to the old beliefs, the political consequences of the choice of paganism or conversion were unmistakable. Religion was politics. After the death of Christianizing Henry, Wendish independence reasserted itself under the vigorously pagan prince Niklot. The end of the independence of the Rugians was marked by the destruction of the temple and public pagan worship at Arkona in 1168 by Valdemar I of Denmark, a more lasting repeat of the enforced baptism of the Arkona garrison by the Danes between 1134 and 1136. Apostasy, as of the Rugians after 1136 and the Wends after 1127, expressed communal identity. Conversion was more important than a matter of faith. Long before the 1147 crusade, political confrontation had been articulated in religious terms.

Bernard of Clairvaux’s stark and canonically suspect choice, baptism or death, implicitly acknowledged this religious component to competing perceptions of ethnicity, cultural identity, political autonomy and racial awareness. He referred to the conversion or extermination of the pagan races. While this may have appeased legal experts by avoiding direct approval of forced individual conversion, equating the threat of collective destruction of the pagan nation with the alternative of personal baptism exposed a clear contradiction to canon law. More obviously, Bernard’s direct exhortation to arm the faithful ‘with the Holy Cross against the enemies of the Cross of Christ’ invited a far simpler interpretation and response.7 The Wendish crusade of 1147 was a missionary war not cloaking but glorifying and legitimizing a campaign of undisguised material aggrandizement. The distant memory of the conquests beyond the Elbe by Saxon and Salian German kings in the tenth and eleventh centuries combined with the confused recent history of conversion ebbing backwards and forwards according to the political and ecclesiastical interest of local rulers to allow a retrospective justification in the concept of a reconquest of lost Christian lands.8 In practical military or political terms, such excuses made little difference to the reality while intellectually and rhetorically, if not entirely spurious, they formed a convenient exercise in double-speak. Nonetheless, the easy acceptance of the trappings of crusading in the Baltic revealed how far a positive ideology of legitimate religious violence had penetrated the western Christian world and how far cultural and territorial acquisitiveness marched with spiritual imperialism.

The longer-term implications scarcely intruded directly into the circumstances of the 1147 crusade. A generation later, the frontier missionary priest Helmold of Bosau, following Bernard’s lead, sought to equate the desultory fighting of the summer of 1147 with the struggle for the Holy Land, characterizing the expeditions in terms of vengeance against Slavs occupying previously Christian lands and retribution for attacks and atrocities on Christians. Yet he also described the complicated cross-frontier relations between one of the crusade’s leaders, Count Adolf of Holstein, and Niklot of the Abotrites, one of its targets. They had entered into an alliance shortly before the 1147 campaigns.9 The context of the decision to extend the Holy Land privileges to the Saxon princes included the need of King Conrad III to leave a peaceful realm behind him when he departed for Palestine. Unwilling to accede to Henry the Lion’s demands at the Diet of Frankfurt of March 1147 for restitution of his ancestral claims in Bavaria, Conrad nonetheless sought to bind the potentially dissident magnate within the general Peace of the crusade. Henry’s uncle joined Conrad’s army, but Henry’s Saxon allies refused to join the eastern campaigns. By extending the crusade vow and obligations to the annual summer raids across the Wendish frontier, Conrad and Bernard performed a neat trick of offering ecclesiastical approval to traditional autonomous regional conflict in a manner that implicitly tied the participants to royal policy, if only temporarily. Significantly, among those mustered at Magdeburg in August 1147 was Wibald abbot of Stavelot, a leading member of the regency government, his presence signalling the element of royal sanction, if not control. The unusual, local and distinctive nature of the German Wendish crusade was recognized symbolically. According to Otto of Freising, a Holy Land crucesignatus, the Saxon crusaders’ crosses ‘differed from ours in this respect, that they were not simply sewed to their clothing, but were brandished aloft, surmounting a wheel’, to all appearances as much a totem of religious aggression and triumphalism as a badge of penance.10

For all the religious propaganda, and the large turnout of German bishops (at least eight), many of whom, wielding temporal as well as ecclesiastical authority in their cities, were able to raise substantial armies of their own, the nature of the 1147 campaigns to Dobin and Demmin was more accurately captured by the complaint of Saxon crusaders when the siege of Dobin turned to a war of attrition:

Is not the land we are devastating our land, and the people we are fighting our people? Why are we, then, found to be our own enemies and the destroyers of our own incomes? Does not this loss fall back on our lords?11

The temporal dynamic was more embarrasingly exposed when one of the crusader armies found itself besieging the Christian city of Stettin until the local Pomeranian bishop pointed out their mistake. The 1147 crusade was regional warfare under a new flag of convenience. As a crusade, it achieved nothing; as Abbot Wibald reflected, ‘it didn’t work’.12

However, the potential in holy war was suggested by the involvement of the two warring claimants to the Danish throne, Canute V and Sweyn III. They temporarily ceased their contest to join together with a German force under the archbishop of Bremen and Henry the Lion in the attack on Dobin. Domestically, the crusade acted in Denmark as elsewhere in western Christendom, legitimizing the annexation of territory, providing a respectable context for the resolution of political conflict and encouraging the development of the institutions of the state by associating royalty with a recognizable divinely inspired mission. Like the Saxons, the Danes had appeared reluctant to join Conrad III’s eastern expedition, but the prospect of what must have seemed easy pickings atthe Wends’ expense combined with the offer of crusade indulgences to prompt the royal rivals to joint action. The year before, Sweyn had translated the bones of his uncle, Duke Canute, murdered by Canute V’s father in 1131, to a monastic tomb preparatory to canonization (which came in 1169). Duke Canute had fought against the Wends in campaigns later characterized as holy wars. His son, Valdemar I (1157–82), while continuing to fight the Wends, secured his father’s status as a saint, incorporated the image of a holy warrior in his coinage and became a patron of the Hospitallers. Although involvement in the 1147 expedition proved a flop, subsequent Danish rulers eagerly associated their kingship and their conquests across the Baltic with religious warfare, some of which attracted the formal apparatus of crusading, introducing a competitive element in the Christian grab for the Baltic over the next two centuries.13 Yet, to define the Denmark of Valdemar I and his successors as a ‘crusading state’ places too precise an emphasis on what was a more general concept of armed expansionism that, by virtue of its Christian tinge, was held up in favourable comparison with the glorious Viking past. As Esbern, brother of the Slav-bashing Archbishop Absalon of Lund, declared at the start of the Third Crusade, the crusade offered ‘greater and more profitable conquests’ than those achieved by the heroes of former times.14 The profit was spiritual; it was also material.


Crusading in the Baltic contributed to the twelfth-century German expansion into territory between the Elbe and Oder and western Pomerania; thirteenth-century German penetration into the southern Baltic lands between the Vistula and Nieman, Prussia, Courland and, in the fourteenth century, Pomerelia west of the Vistula; the transmarine colonization of Livonia in the thirteenth century by a combination of churchmen and merchants from German trading centres such as Luübeck and Bremen; the aggressive expansionism of the Danish crown, especially in northern Estonia; and the advance of the Swedes into Finland. As secondary involvement, these theatres of war expanded to include Greek Orthodox Russian Novgorod and, from the later thirteenth century, Lithuania, a front of religious as well political contest that sustained the idea and practice of holy war in increasingly quaint and attenuated, if still bloody, forms into the fifteenth century. Yet to ascribe responsibility to the crusade for the harsh barbarism of aspects of German, Danish or Swedish imperialism would mislead. One might as well accuse the medieval western church. Equally, it should be remembered that Baltic pagans were just as enthusiastic about massacring opponents and eradicating the symbols of an alien faith when opportunity arose. The secular reality of these wars was brutal for the conquered and only little less harsh for the conquerors or the Germans and Flemish who settled in their wake.

After 1147, formal crusade bulls were not again issued for Baltic warfare until 1171 and only became a regular feature of Christian conquest there from the 1190s. Appearances could deceive. Local observers such as Helmold of Bosau or the Danish historians Sven Aggeson and Saxo Grammaticus invoked the language of holy religious war. In 1169, Pope Alexander III described Valdemar I’s conquest and forced conversion of the islanders of Rügen the previous year as ‘inspired with the heavenly flame, strengthened by the arms of Christ, armed with the shield of faith and protected by divine faith’.15 The crusade bull of 1171 looked forward to an extension of holy war from Wendish Pomerania to distant Estonia. Yet, that bull excepted, the institutions of crusading – vow, cross, indulgence – were absent.16 Saxo depicts the motives for Danish attacks on their pagan neighbours as revenge and imperialism. Helmold famously decried Henry the Lion’s secular greed: ‘in the several expeditions the young man has so far undertaken into Slavia, no mention has been made of Christianity, but only of money’.17 One of the veterans of 1147, Albert the Bear (d. 1170), did not need crusade bulls to carve out a principality of Brandenburg beyond the Elbe, even though his acquisitiveness was predictably portrayed by apologists as attracting the approval of God, ‘who had given him his victory over his enemies’.18 For pagans too, motives concerned the material as much as the eternal. In 1156, Pribislav of Luübeck was prepared to accept baptism, erect churches, even pay tithes, provided ‘the rights of Saxons in respect of property and taxes be extended to us’.19 Until the turn of the century, the extension of German and Danish power along the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic, while susceptible to holy war interpretation, remained largely unmoved by holy war priorities.

Crusading in the Baltic directly served political, economic and ecclesiastical ambitions: the extension of German or Danish rule; the establishment of new towns, trading posts and privileged immigrant rural communities; the creation of bishoprics and the proliferation of, in particular, Cistercian monasteries. The crusading dimension assumed the highly distinctive element of being allied with conversion, Bernard of Clairvaux’s choice, baptism or death. Converts were welcomed; resisters were degraded or exterminated. Innocent III freely used the language of compulsion, in 1209 encouraging Valdemar II of Denmark to pursue ‘the war of the Lord… to drag the barbarians into the net of orthodoxy’.20 This unsound doctrine acknowledged the assistance religion lent to political aggression. It also recognized the religious component in practical as well as theoretical distinctions of ethnicity, cultural identity and racial awareness. In contrast with Spain or the Near East, in the Baltic crusades conversion came as a corollary and recognition of conquest. Although destructive and brutal during initial contact, paradoxically the insistence on conversion as the price of constructive coexistence allowed for greater long-term cultural accommodation. As pagans could become Christians, so, as Pribislav of Luübeck was hinting, Slavs, Letts, Balts and Livs could become Germans.

This process rested on self-interest as much as self-image. The Wendish Abotrite ruler Niklot had been killed by Christian forces in 1160. Despite converting the same year, his eldest son Pribislav had been disinherited. He spent much of the 1160s in revolt against the new ruler of the area, Henry the Lion, until at the end of the decade he was finally installed as ruler of Mecklenberg, essentially as heir to his father’s principality. For much of this period, according to Christian sources, Pribislav had emphasized that he was fighting for Slavic independence against the new German yoke. Once reconciled politically with the new regime, he embraced its Christianizing policies, helping Valdemar I destroy the idols and temples on Rügen in 1168, allying with the leading missionary to the Abotrites, Bern of Amelungsborn, and becoming an active patron of the Cistercians. In 1172, Pribislav accompanied his overlord Henry the Lion on his elaborate pilgrimage to Jerusalem. His own son was baptized with a politically correct non-Slavic name, Henry. In subsequent generations of his family German and Latin names predominated over Slavic ones. His heirs, the dukes of Mecklenberg, become patrons of the Hospitallers. In 1147 Pribislav’s father had been the target for a crusade. In 1218 one of his descendants joined a crusade to Livonia.21 On the southern shores of the Baltic, at least, the scramble for status, wealth and power, and the desire to exploit the opportunities for conquest and redemption further east, dictated such transformations. Even the heirs of the strongly pagan princes of Rügen, forcibly converted in 1168, joined in the assaults on the pagans of the east Baltic in the thirteenth century.

However unpalatable to the religiously fastidious, when allied with material advantage, enforced conversion worked. By 1400, the Baltic had become a Latin Christian lake, even at the cost of sustained conflict with the Greek Orthodox Christians of Russia as well as the various pagan communities and peoples. Beneath the surface, elements of pagan culture swam freely. But in towns, cathedrals, churches and forts; in new liturgical calendars, even where infected by older beliefs and ceremonial custom; in new saints’ cults; in the payment of tithes; in the presence of western-trained scholars and church leaders; in new laws for the western immigrants; in literature, both Latin and vernacular; in ideologies of rule; and in the actual presence and activities of rulers, lay, clerical and that peculiar mixture of the two, the military order, Latin Christendom imposed itself indelibly on the physical, mental and human landscape. Conversion not backed by coercion, painful and laborious as it was, may have experienced a harder struggle, especially in regions removed from the immediate frontier with Latin Christendom in eastern Germany and Poland. The survival of paganism in Lithuania derived from effective political and military resistance and the development of a strong, pagan state. Only in 1386 did the Lithuanians accept Christianity, on their own terms, as a consequence of their king Jogaila’s acquisition of the Polish throne. Everywhere, popular religious conversion followed, if at all, far behind the imposition of Christian political and ecclesiastical authority. Formal observance or occasional conformity may have been necessary for social and economic survival. But, equally, Christian conquerors of the Baltic coasts needed to retain open commercial links with pagan or Orthodox Christian interiors. Alone, it is hard to see missionaries having the same success as the killers, the adventurers, the entrepreneurs and the empire-builders. The application of crusading incentives to German, Danish and to a lesser extent Swedish political and economic competition did not create the link between force and faith. The process of cultural and territorial imperialism was established well before 1147 and already articulated by enthusiasts in religious as well as racial terms.

The real impetus towards fixing the technical apparatus of crusading – vow, cross, indulgence and so on – to Christian conquest in the Baltic came when attention shifted in the late twelfth century from the Wends and western Slavs of the southern Baltic to the heathen tribes further east, first Livonia (modern Latvia), then Estonia, Prussia and Finland. These theatres dominated the crusading operations for the century after the 1190s. Celestine III authorized a crusade to Livonia in 1193, a call repeated by Innocent III in 1198. Formal crusade bulls and crusading recruitment were then sporadically attached from the early thirteenth century to the increasingly belligerent Danish attempts to colonize Estonia and its neighbouring islands, the conquest of Prussia and to Danish and Swedish attacks on Finland. The new focus followed the revival of crusading formulae and consciousness after 1187, evident both in ideology and practice. It came with the commitment to the broadest prosecution of the Lord’s War by successive popes from Celestine III, an enthusiastic crusade promoter in Spain and Palestine as well as the Baltic, and Innocent III. It also reflected the commercial and ecclesiastical ambition of German mercantile cities, Bremen, Lübeck even Cologne. Political and civil unrest and social conflict within Germany from the 1190s created a pool of people willing to take risks to establish new lives as colonists and conquerors. Arnold of Lübeck described the recruits for the disastrous Livonian crusade of 1198 as including bishops, clergy, knights, the rich, the poor and businessmen or merchants (negotiatores).22 Across the Baltic in Denmark and Sweden, the prospect of ecclesiastically condoned wars of expansion appealed to monarchs eager to assert their authority through martial expansion beyond traditional frontiers. The pagan communities of the east and north Baltic appeared vulnerable in their relative lack of technological sophistication, political disunity and openness to commercial exploitation. Their attraction lay rather more in their furs, fish, amber, wax and slaves than the need to reform their benighted beliefs. The Baltic crusades rode a new, decisive balance of power in the region to which it gave a reassuring ideology and a cruel edge. The pagan Estonian defenders of Fellin in 1211 saw the point. After a short, brutal siege, marked by uncompromising butchery by the Christian besiegers, the garrison surrendered in return for baptism: ‘We acknowledge your God to be greater than our gods. By overcoming us, He has inclined out hearts to worship Him.’23

The identification of Baltic warfare as religious adopted different guises. In Livonia or Estonia, around 1200, expansionist conquest could be justified narrowly as defence of missionary churches. Previous Christian evangelism and conversion lent legitimacy to wars against the Wends or in parts of Pomerania. The theme of apostasy and restoration of lost Christian territory became pervasive, from Prussia to Finland, when each transient summer raid by Christian fleets produced temporary submission by local pagans, and the Baltic coasts were littered with the remains of abandoned or destroyed mission stations and a few surviving ones. Henry of Livonia, committed mission priest and triumphalist Christian apologist for the Livonian colony and its wars, significantly described the Livs as ‘perfidious’, breakers of faith.24 The campaigns of the kings of Denmark along the southern Baltic shore or in northern Estonia were conducted by monarchs who wrapped themselves in the aura of Christian warriors, ‘active knights of Christ’.25 By rooting out paganism, the conquerors were performing holy tasks, their conquests, by incorporation into Christendom,ipso facto holy. More generally, the areas attacked were assigned a new holy status, mimicking the Holy Land of Palestine or the lands of St Peter or St James in the Iberian peninsula. This allowed for a very particular form of military and political management. From c.1202, the missionary bishop of Riga, in Livonia, recruited a religious order of knights, the Militia of Christ or Swordbrothers, to defend and extend his diocese on the river Dvina. Their symbol was a sword surmounted by a cross. In 1207 they were granted a third of the Christian settlement. In 1210 an agreement between the Swordbrothers and the bishop established a permanent condominium in Livonia and neighbouring Lettia (Latvia south of the Dvina). A few years later, the missionary bishop on the Polish–Prussian border assembled a similar body, the Militia of Christ of Livonia against the Prussians, also known as the Knights of Dobrin (or Dobryzn) after their original headquarters on the Vistula. Recognized by the pope in 1228, their emblem comprised a sword topped by a star. Although deriving their rules from those of the Templars and sharing characteristics in defence and settlement with the military orders on the Muslim – Christian borderlands in Spain, these orders displayed unique characteristics. Officially they held land and authority from the local bishop. Their resources came almost exclusively – and meagrely – from what they seized for themselves. Unlike the international orders, they had no lush estates in the prosperous west to cushion them from the impoverished realities of the barren frontiers and wastes of the Baltic interior. They were also confronted by the legal and practical problems of dealing with pagans and forced converts. Yet the model of a permanent garrison of Christian warriors who sustained the frontiers and colonies between crusades, helped plan and direct the expeditions that did arrive and, most distinctive, ruled over the conquests they secured, was one that, in the form of the Teutonic Knights from the 1220s onwards, came to dominate Christian aggression in much of the eastern Baltic for the rest of the middle ages.26

The sanctification of the Baltic wars recast the region as holy space. In 1212 Innocent III declared Livonia to have been subjugated for St Peter, a claim his successors attempted to make good over the next quarter of a century. Prussia became a papal fief in 1234. Thirty years earlier, at Riga in Livonia in the first decade of its settlement by German missionaries, knights and merchants, a cathedral was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the settlers’ protectress, and a church to St Peter, guarantor of ecclesiastical privileges. Recruits to defend the colony were urged to ‘accept the Cross of the Blessed Virgin’. At the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, Albert of Buxtehude, bishop of Riga, declared Livonia to be the land of the Virgin Mary, just as Jerusalem was the land of her Son. This designation of the Virgin as patroness of the Riga colony, the land of Livonia her dowry, allowed apologists to describe crusaders as pilgrims or the ‘militia of pilgrims’, in line with crucesignati elsewhere, even in Languedoc.27 When the Teutonic Knights assumed direction of war and government in Prussia and then Livonia in the 1230s, absorbing the other military orders in the process, identification with the cult of the Virgin Mary was reinforced, as she was the order’s own patroness. In Livonia the knights bore her image as a war banner. By the end of century, in the view of the religious knight in the rhyming history of Livonia, the Livlandische Reimchronik, Mary had become a war goddess. In the absence of a genuine historic justification, the author, possibly a Teutonic knight, insinuated a transcendent context. Beginning by recounting the Creation, Pentecost and the missions of the Early Church, he admitted that no apostle reached Livonia, in contrast to the myth of St James converting Spain. Instead, a higher mission was being conducted in the wilderness of the eastern Baltic. The holy task begun by the Apostles of proselytizing the world was now being prosecuted through service and death in the armies of the Mother of God in defence of Her land.28

Such literary and rhetorical devices reassured participants and attracted recruits partly by refusing to disguise the true nature of the wars in their bitterness, difficulty, frustrations and violence. Some aspects could not so easily be translated into such robust edification. Christian efforts were marked as much by rivalry and competition as by the unity of faith. In Livonia and Estonia, the Danes contested the ambitions of the Swordbrothers and later the Teutonic Knights. In 1234, the Swordbrothers of Riga displayed their contempt for the pope’s authority by killing 100 men employed by the papal legate and then heaping their bodies into a pile, sticking ‘one of the slain who had been too faithful to the Church on top of the other dead to represent the Lord Pope’.29 As reported to Gregory IX, by this atrocity these knights of Christ wished to show themselves to ‘converts, Russians, pagans and heretics to be greater than the Roman Church’. Later in the century, the brutality of the Teutonic Knights faced criticism. The Oxford scholar Roger Bacon argued in the 1260s that the Knights’ desire to rule and enslave the pagan Prussians presented a barrier, not an incentive, to conversion. In his advice to the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, the Dominican preaching expert Humbert of Romans challenged the premise that the pagans posed a genuine threat to Christian lands, a perception hardly shared by frontiersmen in Livonia or Lithuania.30

The almost Manichaean view of a conflict between world forces of good and evil hardly matched the very different practical realities of conquest and colonization. Contact, compromise and change filtered across the innumerable political and religious boundaries from the Elbe to Lake Lagoda. In Prussia, especially the western parts, German and Flemish settlement appeared substantial. In Livonia and Estonia, accessible only by a tricky and expensive sea voyage when the water was free of ice, western colonization was negligible, limited almost exclusively to fortified trading posts on the main rivers. Prussia witnessed a slow process of acculturation similar to the earlier experience between the Elbe and Oder. Slavs became Germans, an uncomfortable notion for later racial nationalists on both sides of the linguistic divide. The judicial pluralism and segregation familiar from other crusading fronts did not prevent the Prussians adopting elements of German inheritance laws and, more awkwardly for the invaders, German military technology. Over generations, the brutality of forced conversion, occupation, dispossession, alien settlement and discrimination transformed Prussia into a distinctively German province. By contrast, only a small military, clerical and commercial elite was established in Estonia and Livonia, largely confined to the coast and river valleys, especially the Dvina. Power depended on solid fortresses; technological superiority in artillery, siege machines, armour and weapons; uneasy alliances with native rulers who sought the invaders’ protection from other regional enemies; and Christian control of the ports and access to maritime trade routes for local produce from the pagan interior. These different colonial experiences cast long shadows. In March 1939, Adolf Hitler insisted that Lithuania cede Memel, established by German invaders in 1252, to the Third Reich, an act that provoked Britain’s guarantee to protect Poland. No part of historic Prussia was to be outside Greater Germany. Yet, five months later, Hitler was content to consign Latvia and Estonia as well as Lithuania to the lot of the Russians as if they were, in a sense crucial to the Nazi perversion of the past, less ‘German’.


Livonia 1188–1300

The origins of Christian dominion in Livonia were prophetic, combining genuine missionary enthusiasm, church politics, cultural imperialism and profit, the building blocks of conquest. Drawn by growing trading links between western German and Baltic ports such as Bremen and, especially, Lübeck, an isolated mission to the Dvina valley by a German canon, Meinhard, was taken over by his ecclesiastical superior, Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen (1185–1207), who elevated the missionary into a bishop and began to solicit papal support for a Christian invasion. Meinhard’s failure to secure any lasting converts, despite showing the locals how to construct stone fortresses, encouraged a more vigorous policy after his death in 1196. Hartwig, eager to secure a new ecclesiastical empire for Bremen, which a century earlier had dominated the north, despatched a new bishop, Berthold. A futile initial foray in 1196–7 was succeeded by an armed expedition in 1198 recruited with the help of papal privileges. Despite the German army’s military success, Berthold managed to get himself killed. The expedition achieved nothing beyond coercing a few temporary converts and showing off the effectiveness of German scorched earth tactics.

Archbishop Hartwig was not so easily deflected. He was not content just to preside over a series of piractical raids or even the creation of trading stations on the Dvina. His concept was of a new ecclesiastical missionary state, under episcopal not secular control. For this he needed a suitable cleric, political backing and papal support. Each were conveniently to hand, in the shape of his nephew, Albert of Buxtehude; Canute VI of Denmark and his brother Valdemar; Philip of Swabia, Hohenstaufen candidate for the contested German throne; and Pope Innocent III, for whom Hartwig’s scheme represented a practical demonstration of the sort of theocratic authority that chimed precisely with his own grander ambitions. Albert became the new bishop of Livonia (1198–1229) while in October 1199 Innocent III issued an unequivocal call for a crusade to defend the Christians of Livonia, a fiction made possible by reference to Meinhard’s evangelizing and the Livs’ subsequent apostasy. The news of the crusade bull reached Philip of Swabia’s Christmas court along with Bishop Albert, who engaged in a strenuous tour of preaching and diplomacy. The cross was preached in Saxony and Westphalia, but the most important backing was garnered by Albert’s visits to the mercantile community at Visby in Gotland, where 500 apparently took the cross, and his meeting with King Canute, his brother, and the veteran holy warrior Archbishop Absalon of Lund. Although Danish support was vital to allow recruits to sail unimpeded from Lübeck to Livonia, it was later regarded by them as an acceptance of overlordship, a clash of interests only too characteristic of colonization in the eastern Baltic.31

Bishop Albert’s crusade to Livonia in 1200 provided the basis of the new Christian state, setting the military and ideological pattern for its conquest and occupation. The central dynamic combined ecclesiastical with commercial imperialism. More than most other crusade locations, Livonia was unequivocally a colony, of north Germany and Latin Christianity. For a quarter of a century, Bishop Albert followed a routine of more or less annual recruiting tours of Germany and the west Baltic. In 1204 he received a papal bull effectively authorizing him to sign up crusaders whenever he wished.32 Although the Holy Land crusade was regarded as paramount – Albert’s new colony contributed its own share, for example, to the church tax for the Fifth Crusade – the habitual support of crusade privileges lent a special quality to the bishop’s sales pitch and responses to it. As Eric Christiansen has observed, ‘the Lübeck – Livonia run became a steady source of profit and absolution for skippers, knights, burghers and princes’.33 Within a decade, Bishop Albert had subdued the pagan tribes of the coast and lower Dvina, built a new capital at Riga with a port to accommodate the great trading cargo ships from the west, begun his new cathedral and created his permanent garrison of Christian knights, the Swordbrothers. In the process, like any conquering lord, he provided a bonanza for members of his own family. Albert’s brothers, a brother-in-law and cousins were rewarded with important, potentially lucrative positions in church and state, founding dynasties that formed part of the nucleus of the German settlers’ establishment.

The Livonian state rested on volatile foundations. Bishop Albert faced challenges to his sovereignty from the papacy and the king of Denmark. Internally, clerical rule depended on the support of the German merchants, whose interests were primarily economic, not spiritual, and the nominally subservient but actually autonomous Swordbrothers, who controlled a third of all territory and claimed the right to the same share of all future conquests. Critics saw little difference between the businessmen and the knights, accusing the Swordbrothers of being crooks, wealthy renegade merchants from Saxony. The mercantile elite refused to allow Bishop Albert to surrender Riga to the Danes as part of a settlement of jurisdictional rivalries in 1222. The Swordbrothers were increasingly a law to themselves, especially after Albert’s death in 1229. Both knight and trader were self-evidently entrepreneurial in their attitude to Livonia, as was the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The spreading of Christianity became indistinguishable from the creation of privileged trading depots, commercial cartels and fresh estates for the military order alongside the foundation, endowment or annexation of bishoprics (such as Dorpat, founded in 1133) and monasteries, like Dunamunde. The regular Livonian crusades of the first third of the thirteenth century were central to sustaining the practical aspects of this congruence of material and spiritual expansionism by providing physical reinforcements for defence and attack. These wars of the Cross maintained the ideological credentials of the operation, even in the face of exploitation, scandal and corruption, which by the mid-1230s threatened the colony’s very survival.34

The first wave of conquest to 1209 brought the lower Dvina valley under Rigan control, as well as the subjugation by a combination of alliance and force of the Semigallians south and west of the river and the Letts to the north and east. One advantage the Germans held was their perceived ability to protect local rulers from their traditional enemies, the Lithuanians to the south and the Estonians to the north. The ruler of Polotsk, upstream from the Livonian enclave, came to terms with the new settlers in order to ease commerce. From 1209 to 1218, the Livonians pressed northwards into Estonia, but were then checked by the intervention of Valdemar II of Denmark, who claimed sovereignty there. After an initial alliance of convenience between the Livonian Germans and the Danes in 1219, acrimonious rivalries threatened to undermine not only the new conquest in Estonia but Bishop Albert’s lordship in Livonia itself. Estonia was partitioned in 1222, leaving the Danes in control of the north coast around their new fortress of Reval (now Tallinin, built in 1219), and with a measure of recognized overlordship over the rest. The problem for Bishop Albert lay in King Valdemar’s stranglehold over Baltic shipping and over Lübeck in particular. Without Lübeck as a base for recruits and cargoes, German Livonia, whoever exercised power, could hardly exist. Thus Albert bequeathed an essentially unstable political system, contested between distant or absentee foreigners, the Danes and the papacy; local settlers and merchants; the Swordbrothers; the indigenous population of converts, allies and pagans; and nervous or aggressive neighbours, such as the Curonians, the Lithuanians and the Russians of Novgorod. This hardly made for a model Christian state, whatever the rhetoric of pilgrimage and the cross.

In the generation after Bishop Albert, despite further conquests, the main challenges to the viability of German Livonia remained invasion, rebellion and internal disintegration. The islanders of Osel and the Curonians had capitulated by 1231, and a network of defensive barrier forts begun to consolidate a sort of frontier with the Samogitians and Lithuanians in the south and the Russians in the east. The modest returns on land led to fierce competition between the Swordbrothers and other ecclesiastical and lay landowners. Rapacious exploitation of local peasantry and commercial tolls provoked rebellion in 1222 and, in concert with military defeat of the Swordbrothers by the Lithuanians, in 1236. Between 1225 and 1227, the Swordbrothers, keen to maximize their income, seized the Danish areas of northern Estonia, including Reval, which they held until 1237, in direct contravention of the 1222 partition. By this time the Swordbrothers’ unruly independence had attracted the disapproval of the papacy as well. Despite, or perhaps because of, their success, the knights, who never numbered more than about 120, had developed a taste and earned a justified reputation for loutish thuggery and barbaric cruelty. Wenno, the first Master, had been murdered with an axe by a fellow brother. His successor, Folkwin, a nobleman from Hesse, pursued a policy of vigorous military enterprise and selfinterested gangsterism. The Swordbrothers were content to ally with Livonia’s enemies to gain territorial advantage. After Bishop Albert’s death, they ignored the 1204 and 1207 agreements by encroaching on episcopal property. Cistercian monasteries were plundered, converts were massacred and baptisms prevented. For the Swordbrother, the best Liv or Lett was a slave, not a co-religionist. The atrocity of the massacre of the papal legate’s men in 1234 further alienated the papacy, which had been critically investigating the order for years. By the mid-1230s, the Swordbrothers were isolated. The pope had condemned them; the king of Denmark had been made an enemy. In 1236, Folkwin and fifty brothers, at the head of an army of crusader recruits, were killed by the Lithuanians at the battle of Saule in Samogitia. The following year, the order was wound up, the remaining members absorbed by the Teutonic Knights who now assumed their responsibilities in Livonia.

The arrival of the Teutonic Knights restored the territorial integrity and political coherence of the Livonian colony that had almost been swept away in 1236, helped by their extensive international resources, the backing of the pope and the acquiescence of the Danish king, to whom northern Estonia was restored in 1238. Through a winning combination of military strength, alliances with neighbours and a measure of tolerance towards client rulers, the Teutonic Knights made themselves undisputed masters of Livonia. Bishop Albert’s ecclesiastical experiment was abandoned as the bishops (after 1253 archbishops) of Riga ceded two-thirds of conquests to the order. But the settlement remained precarious. A further general revolt in 1259–60, aided by Russians and Lithuanians, threatened to sweep away the whole edifice of German power in the region. The uprising was based on those client states that the Teutonic Knights had carefully nurtured around its key holdings, while Livonia and Prussia, despite the hardness of their rule, remained loyal. For the rest of the century, the Teutonic Knights fought to reclaim territory and secure Livonia’s frontiers. This they achieved, at a high cost in devastation and death. Semigallia was laid waste and depopulated as its inhabitants fled to Lithuania. Samogitia remained outside Livonian grip. The victory of the Knights was won at the cost of a new, even longer confrontation with Lithuania that lasted into the fifteenth century. Yet the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights, with its own provincial Master, survived until 1562, when Gotthard Kettler abandoned his religious vows and turned himself into the duke of Courland and Semigallia, thirty-seven years after the secularization of the order in Prussia. By then, the German order appeared as something of a relic, faced with Muscovite pressure on Livonia’s borders and Lutheran converts within.35

The Conquests by Denmark and Sweden

The spectacular colonizing achievement of the Germans in Livonia and Prussia should not obscure the wider aspects of the invasion of the northern and eastern Baltic by outsiders. Just as relations between Latin Christians, indigenous pagans, converts and Greek Orthodox Christians were as much of accommodation and compromise as of visceral or racial enmity, so the conquerors were not all German or ecclesiastical. At the same time as Scandinavian kings were eager to enter the orbit of Latin Christendom, so they were keen to expand their interests and power eastwards. The two processes went together to consolidate new national ideologies and the cohesion of power elites. The motives for attacks on Estonia and Finland may have been commercial, the need to combat or regulate piracy and increase profits; the means – naval raids and the settlement of religious centres and trading stations – prudential rather than ideological. Yet, even without the assistance of their own military orders, the kings of Denmark and Sweden managed to attract the approval of the church for their wars of Baltic conquest.

Danish fleets had operated in the eastern Baltic on a number of occasions in the later twelfth century, from Finland to Prussia. The Swedes were also said to have launched occasional raids on the coasts of the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga. These transitory forays allowed later propagandists to assert supposed historic political, religious and ecclesiastical claims. More directly, by 1200, any Latin Christian war against non-Christians could expect to find religious backing. Locally, church-building and the construction of cathedrals, dioceses and monasteries anchored political and commercial imperialism. In alliance with the crown, the church ruled its tenants, collected raw materials and taxes (tithes) and dispensed justice on their estates. To such administrative structures was added social policing through conversion of the natives, at once a symbol and guarantee of local acceptance of the new order. The church gave the conquest, the conquerors and their allies a clear, shared communal identity. Internationally, conquests depicted as extending or defending Christianity could gain for the monarch who conducted such campaigns the recognition and sanction of the papacy, a valuable asset in elevating regional kingship above domestic challenge. Whether or not it actually produced material dividends, the attempts by Scandinavian kings to align their status with the great monarchs of western Christendom suggested that they believed such policies offered tangible rewards.36

In 1171, Alexander III offered to those who campaigned against the pagans of the eastern Baltic, probably the Estonians, a year’s plenary indulgence as given to pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre. Those who died on the expedition would receive full remission of confessed sins. Although not technically exactly equivalent to a crusade – no vow, no cross and smaller spiritual privileges – such incentives recognized the direction of papal thinking.37 Despite Valdemar I’s interest in the area, nothing came of this initiative. It seems that the first full-blown Danish crusade in the eastern Baltic, complete with crucesignati, accompanied Valdemar II’s attack on Osel in 1206.38 This produced no lasting occupation, but whetted the king’s appetite for the creation of Danish colonies and protectorates across the region. In 1218, Honorius III backed Valdemar’s east Baltic ambitions by proclaiming a crusade against the heathens of Estonia. Danish crusading forces invaded in 1219 and 1220 as part of a coalition that included the Livonian Swordbrothers, attacking Estonia from the south, and King John of Sweden capturing Leal on Estonia’s west coast. In 1219 Valdemar established a garrison at Reval that controlled the chief natural harbour in northern Estonia. There the Danes built a new city and colonized it with Germans, from Saxony, Holstein and Westphalia, the king content to act as absentee ruler skimming off the profits of trade and the income from extensive estates that the crown assigned to itself. In the long run, this allowed increasing autonomy for the burghers and landowners of Reval and Estonia. Danish interests were decreasingly engaged. In 1346, Valdemar IV sold northern Estonia to the Teutonic Knights, who loosely integrated it into Livonia.

The earliest threat to the Dano-German plantation in northern Estonia had come from former allies. Although the Swedes soon evacuated Leal, the Swordbrothers, as already discussed, continued to advance from the south, occupying Reval itself in 1227. Conflicts of jurisdiction led to an appeal to Rome. Only after the settlement with the new Livonia authorities, the Teutonic Knights, in 1238 was Danish overlordship accepted, at least by fellow Latin Christians. Thereafter, the main interest of the Danish kings concerned the prospects for further eastwards expansion into the Vod region controlled by the Russians of Novgorod. The limits to Danish expansion were set in a series of wars along Estonia’s eastern frontier. Valdemar II became involved in the anti-Russian crusade of 1240–42 beside the Teutonic Knights from Livonia and the Swedes moving east from their bases in Finland. However, the Swedes were defeated on the river Neva in 1240 and, after early success against Pskov, the Teutonic Knights were defeated at and on Lake Chud-Peipus on 5 April 1242 by Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, an incident glamorously imagined in Eisenstein’s famous nationalistic film. Papal policy after the 1220s consistently branded the Russians as schismatics, who had to be opposed by force, as well as harbouring fanciful schemes for the conversion of the pagans at the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland. Papal hopes for concerted anti-Russian crusades encouraged Eric IV of Denmark (1241–50) to take the cross in 1244, but without consequence. Pope Alexander IV revived the crusade in 1256, appealing to the faithful in Prussia and Livonia to assist the conversion of the pagans further east. In fact, the modest expedition that followed simply helped a local landowner consolidate his hold on the lower Narva; baptisms were not attempted. Future campaigns in the region, against Novgorod or the pagans of Finland, were entrusted to the kings of Sweden, who had already established a presence on the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland. The political and economic returns from such remote and intractable lands appeared increasingly peripheral to the Danes, while relations between Livonia and the Russians were largely determined by commercial traffic, not religious controversy.39


Swedish interest in Finland reached back to the twelfth century.40 Missionizing the Suomi of south-west Finland began after 1209, accompanied by some colonization from Sweden. Attempts to convert the wilder Tavastrians further east ran into religious and political difficulty. The locals were less amenable. By trying to penetrate Tavastria, the Swedes came into competition with the neighbouring Karelians, who were controlled by the Russians of Novgorod. A crusade to bring the Tavastrians to heel was proclaimed in 1237. Further campaigns were conducted by Birger Jarl, Eric XI’s brother-in-law, in 1249. In 1257 the pope called on the Swedes to attack the Karelians, a war that was aimed at the Russians as well as the pagans. Another expedition in 1292 pushed Swedish influence further into Karelia. Ostensibly organized by King Birger (1290–1319) to promote Latin Christianity in the region, its objective was control of the lucrative north-east Baltic trade, not the cure of souls. Fame and profit, not faith, drove the Swedish armies into the wastes of the Finnish interior.

Frontier war continued between the Swedes and the Russians into the fourteenth century. A Swedish base was established at Viborg in Karelia. Some attempt was made to elevate these conflicts into the sort of permanent religious war familiar in Livonia and Prussia. In the later thirteenth century an appropriate royal saint, the twelfth-century Eric IX, was promoted as the model holy warrior against the Finns, on shaky if not wholly spurious grounds. Dimly remembered martyrs in Finland were brought into the light of ecclesiastical propaganda. The cause of conversion receded in fact, but not as an ideal that could justify the violent aspects of aristocratic power and culture. In the 1340s, Bridget of Sweden urged on her cousin King Magnus II (1319–63) the spiritual merits of a holy war to be fought by a select army of the pious, a penitential and redemptive act of faith and charity.41 More practically, church taxes continued to be raised in expectation of crusading wars, money that could be assigned to the king if he gave the appearance of sympathizing with the cause. Even the religiously refined and later canonized Bridget argued that the king could more justly raise funds for a crusade than for more secular warfare, thus recognizing that the idea of a holy war could still be made to underpin royal authority and neutralize opposition to kings raising men and money.

After a generation of accommodation along the Karelian frontier after the 1320s, in 1348 and 1350, Magnus II launched two new crusades along the Neva either side of the appearance of the Black Death. Backed by yet another crusade enthusiast on the throne of St Peter, Clement VI, Magnus sought to bolster his position at home by attacking the Novgorod Russians when their potential allies in Lithuania and Muscovy were distracted. Orekhov on the Neva was captured and briefly occupied before its recapture by the Novgorodians early in 1349. In 1350, after a futile promenade around the eastern end of the Gulf of Finland, Magnus arrived at Reval, where he tried to achieve by commercial blockade against Novgorod what he had failed to take by arms. Further papal approval in March 1351 allowed Magnus to try to continue throwing his weight around, supported by the prospect of a new church crusade tithe. Despite healthy profits from the tax, Magnus failed to drum up support, either at home or elsewhere in the Latin Baltic. His crusading enterprise fizzled out. Soon Magnus faced rebellion in Sweden and an unwelcome change of policy at the papal Curia; in 1355 they asked for their money back. This marked the end of serious crusading by the Swedes in the Baltic. Attempts to revive the crusade against the Russians were made in the 1370s by King Albert (1364–89); Urban VI offered indulgences in 1378. Raiding across the Karelian frontier sporadically spluttered into life into the fifteenth century. The final Swedish crusade bull, issued by another, if improbable, crusade devotee, the venal and libidinous Alexander VI in 1496, failed even to reach its destination, intercepted by a hostile king of Denmark. The triumph of internecine Christian politics over sentimental, hypocritical or pious manipulation of the institutions of holy war provided a fitting coda to what had become one of the longest and least glamorous of all the conflicts to which the crusade had been attached. Yet it should be remembered that Finland remained part of the Swedish kingdom until 1809.


Crusading in Prussia was of a very different stamp to the dingy campaigns of the far north and left a more obvious mark. If anywhere could be described as a ‘crusader state’ it was the principality created by the Teutonic Knights in thirteenth-century Prussia. Even more than Livonia, medieval Prussian institutions and identity were forged out of a continuous holy war and rule by a military order whose authority, while repeatedly challenged by natives and pagan neighbours, was recognized by pope and emperor alike and sustained by permanent access to crusade privileges, preaching and formulae. Whereas in Livonia or Estonia, the order had to compete with the urban patriciate, ecclesiastical hierarchy or Danish kings, in Prussia by the 1240s the order was supreme domestically and already enjoyed the privilege of declaring crusades on their own, not papal initiative. If not the sadistic ghouls of certain black legends, the order’s rule was effective and transforming. Although suffering repeated military disasters, the order’s international resources and a ready supply of recruits prevented its disintegration. Despite unease at some of the Teutonic Knights’ methods and behaviour, the model of a military order ruling a colonizing state was borrowed by planners of new ways to win back the Holy Land in the fourteenth century. The order provided the aristocracy, commanding the castles, controlling commerce and holding vast tracts of land. From conquered marcher lordship, Prussia became a new heartland of Germany and Germanness. Whilst one of crusading’s more awkward and, for some, uncomfortable legacies, this was also one of its most influential and enduring.42

The crusades in Prussia predated the involvement of the Teutonic Knights by more than a decade. The efforts of Christian, a Cistercian missionary in the region since 1206 and appointed bishop of the Prussians in 1215, received the backing of papal crusading bulls from 1217. For the next few years, in alliance with Germans and Polish lords from the upper Vistula, the bishop tried to extend Christianity to the pagan tribes of the lower Vistula without success. The fierce reprisals after such raids persuaded Conrad duke of Mazovia in 1225 to invite the Teutonic Knights to support the enterprise, freeing him to pursue his ambitions within Poland. The Knights had made a name for themselves since 1211, employed by King Andrew of Hungary defending eastern Transylvania from the Cumans. Founded as a German hospitaller order in Acre during the Third Crusade, the order had enjoyed the patronage of Henry VI, who secured them papal recognition, and later his son Frederick II, who confirmed their privileges in 1215 and vastly increased their endowment. Adopting the rule of the Templars more or less wholesale, although the order’s main theatre of operation, ideologically if not always materially, remained the Holy Land, by the 1220s it had become a landowner across all western Christendom. Just as importantly, in their Master, Hermann of Salza (1209–39), the order possessed a skilled political leader, close to Frederick II. In 1226, in an imperial bull issued at Rimini, Frederick authorized the order to invade Prussia under its own authority; Hermann was to hold its conquests in Kulmerland and Prussia as a Reichsfürst, an independent imperial prince. Conrad of Mazovia was also seemingly persuaded to recognize the order’s autonomous authority in Prussia. Hermann exploited the competition between the pope and Frederick by obtaining in 1234 Gregory IX’s papal designation of the order’s lands in Prussia as a papal fief, under the protection of St Peter, but held by the Teutonic Knights.43 This canny charting of the choppy waters of international politics gave the order a very free hand, especially when Bishop Christian, the only nominal check to their activities, was captured by the Prussians in 1233 and held until 1239. This was a vital period in the consolidation of the order’s leadership of the conquest and organization of the regular crusades proclaimed to help them. They made few obvious efforts to secure the bishop’s release. Recognition of the order’s role in orchestrating outside military reinforcements was recognized in Innocent IV’s grant in 1245, allowing the Teutonic Knights to recruit crusades at will without express papal authority each time.44 This devolution of crusade authorization was logical in dealing with military orders permanently in the front line, and had parallels in Livonia and Spain. In Prussia it consolidated the order’s supreme position as the principal political authority in the new state that was emerging in the wake of conquests they had secured as much by being managers of crusades as through their own unaided efforts.

Hermann of Salza had not been unconditionally impressed by Conrad of Mazovia’s first invitation in 1225. He postponed committing the order until his return from accompanying Frederick II’s crusade to the Holy Land in 1228–9. Then a small reconnaissance force under Hermann Balk established a garrison on the Polish–Kulmerland frontier in 1229 preparatory to an assault down the Vistula. As in Livonia, the key battleground lay along the rivers, the ripuarian forts and trading posts providing the bases for control of the surrounding countryside and for further advance. However, in contrast with the war along the Dvina, the invasion of Prussia came from upstream, strangling Prussian commerce with the interior. Equally unlike Livonia, the order and its crusading allies operated close to home bases, in Poland and Pomerania, within easy reach of the rest of northern Germany. This was reflected in the much greater numerical popularity of the Prussian crusade of the 1230s than any fought in Livonia, Estonia or Finland. It also meant that, unlike the sometimes beleaguered German outposts at Riga and Reval, there was little prospect of the Germans in Prussia being driven into the sea. This did not prevent a series of revolts and counter-attacks challenging and occasionally reversing the process of conquest.

In 1230, the advance down the Vistula began. Over the next decade careful progress was made down river towards the Baltic and the Frisches Haff. Supported by regular and significant crusading armies from across eastern Europe, fortresses were built from Thorn (1231) to Marienwerder (1233) and Elbing (1237) on the shores of the Frisches Haff. Forts in the eastern hinterland of the Vistula were erected at Reden (1234) and Christburg (1237), a significantly chosen name. By using local forced labour, and attracting German colonists and Dominican missionaries, these centres became symbols of domination as well as military bases. In 1233 Silesian immigrants to Kulmerland were granted civic rights in Thorn and Chelmno according to the laws of Magdeburg. Rural estates along the Vistula began to be parcelled out to German lords. On its capture, Elbing was immediately colonized by citizens from Lübeck. From Elbing the invaders advanced north-east towards Samland, thereby cutting the Prussians off from the coast, encouraging some to come to terms with the new foreign power. In 1239, a castle was built at Balga on the Frisches Haff. Having assumed responsibility for Livonia along with the Swordbrother rump in 1237, the Teutonic Knights were well placed to complete the encirclement of the recalcitrant Prussians and link their two provinces to create a swathe of Latin Christian territory from Pomerania to Estonia.

The rapid success of the conquest produced a violent and effective backlash by the Prussian tribes of the interior. They allied with the severely discomposed Duke Swantopelk of Danzig, whose nose had been put well out of joint by the Knights and crusaders, who appeared happy to usurp his political and commercial ambitions in the Vistula valley and along the coast towards Samland. The order’s defeat by the Novgorodians at Lake Chud made them vulnerable. The Prussian revolt began in 1242 and lasted for more than a decade. Initially, the order lost most of the conquests of the 1230s. Only in Pomerania and a few outposts such as Elbing and Balga did the order hold on. The technological advantages in open battle, based on heavy cavalry and massed crossbow fire, and dominance of the waterways proved less decisive for the order than they may have hoped. The Prussians were able to use ambushes and the equivalent of guerrilla tactics to deny the order control of territory away from the fortresses, to launch successful ambushes and to achieve some significant victories. However, sieges tended to be beyond them.

Thus exposed, the fragility of the early conquests produced two complementary results. The order prepared for a long, stern war of repression, witnessed by Innocent IV’s 1245 grant allowing a more or less perpetual crusade. At the same time, a subtler policy of engagement with the native Prussians led to the peace of Christburg in 1249, under which Prussian converts were afforded civil liberties provided they adhered to Christian laws and customs administered by church courts, in practice under the thumb of the Teutonic Order. Faced with more severe native challenges after 1260, the policy of creating a specially privileged elite of Christianized Prussians became a lasting feature of the order’s Prussian polity, integrating the few, tolerating the traditional social structure of a complaisant local aristocracy, while discriminating against the many: pagans, the unfree and the recalcitrant, some of whom, if they had the means, emigrated to more sympathetic regimes beyond the Lithuanian border.

The decade after the treaty of Christburg saw the order outmanoeuvre its competitors. The conquest of Prussia was never simply a question of the Teutonic Knights and their German crusader allies against the rest. Crusading was not permitted to interfere with diplomacy, politics and the chance of lasting success, although it contributed to all three. Accommodation for control of the lower Vistula was reached with Duke Swantopelk in 1253 after he had been threatened by a crusade but, more importantly for the order, to pre-empt Polish designs on the area. The conquest of Samland (1254–6) with the help of the crusade of King Ottokar II of Bohemia prevented its annexation by Hakon IV of Norway, who had been offered the region by the pope. The conquest also allowed the order to trump the Lübeckers, who had begun to organize colonization of Samland in 1246. Russian pressure on the powerful east Prussian Yatwingian tribes induced the king of Lithuania, Mindaugas, to seek a rapprochement with the order and accept baptism. This, in turn, allowed for the peaceful building of two strongholds north of Samland and the Kurisches Haff, along the river Niemen, at Memel (1252) and Georgenburg (1259 – another significant name).

The crisis of the Teutonic Knights’ rule in Prussia, in many ways the crisis of the whole Baltic crusade, came with the great revolt of 1260. A general rising of the Prussian tribes or nations almost reversed the tide completely. Aided by Swantopelk’s son Mestwin of Danzig and involving all the strongest Prussian nations, this time the rebellion was well organized and well equipped. The Prussians had learnt from their conquerors. They now possessed crossbows, knew how to construct siege engines and perfected tactics for open battle, no longer having to rely on furtive campaigning in the backwoods. Between 1260 and 1264, two Prussian Masters of the Teutonic Knights were killed, a crusading army annihilated at Pokarvis, south of Königsberg, colonists massacred and many of the order’s forts lost, including Marienwerder, which had been held since 1233. The savage nature of the war reflected the stakes. On both sides, atrocities in the name of faith punctuated campaigns of devastation and brutality. Whole regions were reduced to waste, whole peoples given a choice of death, slavery or emigration. Only with regular reinforcement of substantial crusade armies and the sustained support of the pope and church in preaching, raising men and funds were the Teutonic Knights able to claw back their position. By 1277, most of the Prussian tribes had submitted or had been destroyed. The Yatwingians surrendered in 1283, with many choosing to emigrate to Lithuania rather than bow to foreign rulers and a foreign god. The end to Prussian resistance brought with it the conquest of the Curonians and Letts. In 1290, the Semigallians were subdued. Failed revolts in 1286 and 1295 merely tightened the vice of the order’s rule. In Prussia and elsewhere, the cost of defeat was exile or enslavement, except for a few aristocratic loyalists and quislings. The price of victory was the creation of a confessional militarist state. Although most thirteenth-century states in western Christendom were to some degree confessional and militaristic, Prussia and its dependencies were unique in being so closely defined institutionally and socially by religion and war, the so-called Ordensstaat.45

The German crusades of the 1260s had saved the Teutonic Knights’ hold on Prussia. The status and resources of the crusaders who joined the Teutonic Knights gave them a clear advantage in comparison with the comparatively threadbare recruitment for the Livonian wars of the cross. The first decade of conquest had attracted important Polish nobles: Conrad of Masovia, his son and Duke Vladislav Odonicz; the German princes Duke Henry of Silesia and Cracow, Margrave Henry of Meissen and Duke Henry of Brunswick. With them came burghers from Silesia, Breslau and Magdeburg as well as Lübeck, and lesser lords in search of new lands, for example from Saxony and Hanover. In the following decades, Prussian crusaders included some of the most important figures in German politics, such as Rudolf of Habsburg (1254), Otto III of Brandenburg (1254 and 1266) and King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1254–5, when he lent his title to the new castle of Königsberg – i.e. King’s Mountain – in Samland, and 1267), Albert I of Brunswick and Albert of Thuringia (1264–5) and Dietrich of Landsberg (1272).46 This political weight of support was the more remarkable as it coincided with prolonged and damaging civil war in Germany from the late 1230s. Such foreign adventures may well have served German nobles well in avoiding awkward choices at home. Among recruits were some leading anti-Hohenstaufen figures, but equally the Teutonic Knights were careful not to sever relations with Frederick II and his family. The long struggle between the Hohenstaufen kings and the papacy allowed the order a measure of independence that otherwise would have been impossible. However, to an extent they made their own luck, diplomatic skill proving crucial in handling difficulties with popes occasionally uneasy at the order’s policies and powers. This task was rendered easier by the order’s good relations with William of Savoy, cardinal of St Sabina (d. 1251), a regular and highly sympathetic legate in the Baltic (1225–6, 1228–30 and 1234–42). William generally promoted the order’s interests, in sharp contrast to his bullishly independent successor Albert Sürbeer, archbishop of Prussia 1246–53 and of Riga 1253–73.

One key to the order’s survival lay in its ability to retain control of its own destiny in the face of pressures from German kings, foreign crusaders, immigrant settlers, the papacy, native rebels and neighbouring powers. With their patron still in Prussian captivity, Bishop Christian’s Militia of Dobryzn was absorbed in 1235, possibly with the connivance of Conrad of Masovia, who wanted their property, certainly to the displeasure of some of its Knights. The Livonian Swordbrothers were taken over two years later. The disintegration of Hohenstaufen power after 1250 assisted the order’s legal autonomy and control over lay settlers. In common with contemporary rulers in France and England, the order, as a secular sovereign authority, brooked no unnecessary interference from the pope or local bishops. Even the aggressive papal legate Albert Sürbeer ended his career forced not to make any appeals to Rome against the Knights, having spent a brief period as the order’s captive after a failed coup in Livonia in 1267–8. The difficulty for advocates of papal or ecclesiastical power rested on the remoteness of the Baltic; the divisions and hostility generated by the wars against the Hohenstaufen; the privileges already granted to the Teutonic Knights; and the order’s undeniable military record. In 1243, the number of Prussian bishoprics, potential jurisdictional rivals, was limited and the order permitted to divide possessions two-thirds to one-third.47 The 1245 grant by Innocent IV, no natural ally, of Jerusalem indulgences to all recruits for the order’s wars who ‘without public preaching’ took the cross devolved on to the order the power to summon fully fledged crusades.48 This did not stop subsequent papal crusade appeals or the authorization of widespread preaching by the friars. However, Innocent’s grant established the mechanics of a permanent crusade run by and for the Teutonic Knights without constant recourse to specific papal approval. This was reinforced in 1260 by Alexander IV’s permission for the order’s priests to preach the cross on their own initiative on terms similar to those granted the Dominicans, Franciscans and local bishops.49 In the circumstances of the revolts of 1242–9 and 1260–83, and in the eternal crusade with Lithuania in the fourteenth century, this special status allowed the order to run its affairs as an autonomous business.

The Later Middle Ages

By 1300, the Teutonic Knights were secure in Prussia, Livonia and southern Estonia, over the following generation consolidating their rule through subjugation and selected favour of ‘Old Prussians’ and the sponsorship of trade and rural and urban immigration by German ‘New Prussians’. Eager to dominate as much of the southern and eastern Baltic as possible, the order annexed Danzig and eastern Pomerania in 1308–10. In 1337, the emperor Louis IV authorized the order to conquer the whole of eastern Europe, by which he meant primarily the growing power of pagan Lithuania and its regular allies in Poland, even though frequent attempts were made by successive popes to recruit the nobility in the latter, a Christian power, as crusaders themselves, against Mongols and, confusingly, Lithuania. In 1346, the order purchased northern Estonia from Valdemar IV of Denmark. The reasons for this expensive and sustained programme of expansion lay in the nature of Baltic politics and of the order itself. Expelled with the rest of the Latin Christians from the Holy Land after the fall of Acre to the Mamluks of Egypt in 1291, the Teutonic Knights relocated their headquarters to Venice. It says much for the respective status of the enterprises that, while it had entrenched itself as sole ruler of a large state in northern Europe, at the cost of unimaginable treasure and more blood, the High Masters, as they called themselves, remained in the Mediterranean. It took a crisis on three fronts to persuade the leadership to move north.50

In Livonia, challenges to the order’s rule by the archbishop and citizens of Riga led to a messy civil war in 1297–9 similar to the feuding that had marked the last decades of Christian rule in Acre. The Knights appeared willing to prosecute their rights even by physical violence against the clergy. The protagonists appealed to the pope. At least since the Second Lyons Council of 1274, the role of the Teutonic Knights had come in for critical scrutiny. While the order’s credentials and role as a bastion against the pagan Lithuanians was praised by Bishop Bruno of Olmütz in a memorandum written for Gregory X in 1272, others doubted the order’s methods and motives.51 Baltic crusade appeals petered out towards the end of the thirteenth century, only reviving in the fourteenth. The Livonian conflict added weight to charges against the order that rumbled on at the papal Curia for years. In 1310, Clement V ordered an inquiry into claims that the order was waging war ‘against Christ’.52 Such legal action coincided with concerted efforts by the powerful and still pagan Lithuanians under Grand Prince Vytenis to conquer Livonia and Prussia. Even more alarming was the arrest and trials of the Templars begun by Philip IV of France in 1307 and confirmed by Clement V a year later. For over a generation there had been serious talk about merging all military orders so as to more effectively defend or recover the Holy Land. With the Templars under the cosh, the Hospitallers established themselves in Rhodes (1306–10), moving their central convent there in 1309. The Teutonic Knights followed suit. In 1309, they moved their headquarters to Marienburg in the safety of their own realm, symbolizing their commitment to the continuing struggle against the infidel. Even then, their Christian enemies almost succeeded in their undoing, the Livonian brothers being excommunicated in 1312 for a year.

In the fourteenth century the crusade against Lithuania served a variety of rather different purposes. It provided the Teutonic Knights, who never numbered more than about 1,000 to 1,200 unevenly split between Prussia and Livonia, with necessary reinforcements on the ground and political capital abroad. Crusades legitimized, at times to the scandal of observers, the order’s long struggle with Lithuania, which, in turn, assisted the maintenance of their grip on their own territories. The regular frozen winter and soggy summer raids, or reisen, provided a reassuring focus for Christendom’s longstanding self-image of religious mission. Until 1386, Lithuania remained a vigorous and aggressive pagan kingdom, although hostilities were not concerned with conversion so much as power and profit. More precisely, these campaigns offered adventurous nobles opportunities to show off. Glamorous in repute but difficult, dangerous and sordid in practice, the raids across the wildernesses that marked the Prussian/Livonian/Lithuanian border, were often run by the order as chivalrous package tours, complete with special feasts, displays of heraldry, souvenirs and even prizes. Perfected by Grand Master Winrich of Kniprode (1352–82), these festivals of knighthood became almost de rigueur for the chivalric classes of western Europe, a rather different clientele to the more habitual Baltic crusaders from Germany and central Europe.53 The dozen prize winners who dined at the Table of Honour after the 1375 reisa each received a badge bearing the motto ‘Honour conquers all’, a far cry from the Jerusalem decree of Clermont (‘Whoever for devotion alone, not for honour or money goes to Jerusalem…’). While remaining popular throughout the fourteenth century, especially during truces in the Hundred Years War in the 1360s and 1390s, the strategic significance of these crusading enterprises waned. Their ideological foundation collapsed after the conversion of Lithuania. Promoters and apologists increasingly fell back on what has been described as the language of illusion to justify what had become simply a matter of secular politics.

The longevity of crusading in the Baltic was impressive. From 1304 until 1423, repeated contingents of German recruits arrived. John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, campaigned three times, as did William IV count of Holland and the Frenchman Marshal Boucicaut. William I of Gelderland went on no fewer than seven reisen between 1383 and 1400. Armies could be substantial for summer campaigns (the winter reisen usually accommodating only a few hundred). Duke Albert III of Austria arrived in 1377 with 2,000 knights of his own. It has been calculated that at least 450 French and English nobles made the journey over this whole period, a habit recognized by Geoffrey Chaucer when giving his Knight a suitably grand chivalric pedigree:

Ful ofte time he hadde the bord bigonne
Aboven alle nacions in Pruce;
In Lettow hadde he reysed and in Ruce,
No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.54

Evidence from England exposes networks of family involvement, wide social embrace and the relationship between the Baltic front and other wars for the faith.55 Between 1362 and 1368, during peace with France, knights and their retinues left England for the Baltic on an almost annual basis, reaching a crescendo of activity in the winter of 1367–8, when licences were granted to at least ninety-seven men to travel to Prussia. These ranged from the large and well-funded retinues of the sons of the earl of Warwick, himself a Baltic veteran from two years before, to an esquire, William Dalleson, who was apparently accompanied by a single yeoman, two hacks and thirty marks.56 The exercise could be expensive and dangerous. However packaged, the fighting was real enough. The Marienkirche at Königsberg became a mausoleum as well as monument to the international dimension of the Lithuanian wars; there John Loudeham, killed on a reisa to Vilnius, was buried with military honours in 1391. A number of those who joined the Teutonic Knights also saw service against the infidel in the Mediterranean. Thomas Beauchamp earl of Warwick’s vow of 1365 was regarded by the pope as interchangeable between Prussia and Palestine.57 Humphrey Bohun earl of Hereford was on the Vistula in 1363; he had also been with the king of Cyprus at the capture of Satalia in southern Turkey in 1361, as had one of his companions in Prussia, Richard Waldegrave from Bures in Suffolk, a future Speaker of the English House of Commons (1381).

Such recruits saw themselves as answering a higher calling. Sympathetic observers described these recruits as pilgrims. Many of them visited the various shrines dotted around Prussia that offered indulgences to visitors. Even though it is difficult to be sure whether or not those who fought with the Teutonic Knights had actually taken the cross in a formal ceremony, traditional language was still applied, one contemporary depicting Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV of England, as going to Prussia in 1390 ‘against the enemies of Christ’s cross’ to ‘avenge the Crucified’.58Whatever the precise legal niceties, foreign participation in these Baltic campaigns can only be understood in the context of the crusade and its continuing tradition. This did not mean that the displays of piety and chivalry necessarily transformed behaviour. Henry Bolingbroke in 1390–91 spent £69 on gambling debts and only £12 on alms.59 Secular considerations abided. The order was sensitive lest their commercial rights were compromised by foreign infiltration arriving in the wake of foreign armies. Concerted efforts were made to try to break into the Baltic trade in the teeth of opposition from the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Knights. Fish wars broke out in the North Sea. In 1373, Edward III of England’s government encouraged a York bowyer to establish a bow-making factory in Prussia. The following year, a Norwich vintner was allowed to try to dump vinegar on the Prussian market, fourteen tuns of Spanish plonk that because of ‘its weakness and age… may not be advantageously sold in England’.60 English merchants settled in Danzig and Königsberg. Lord Bourgchier owned a house in Danzig. This did not make for harmonious relations despite all the free military assistance the Teutonic Knights received. By the early years of the fifteenth century, the English exchequer was paying substantial damages to the Prussian authorities to compensate for trading irregularities. The warriors were not immune. Bolingbroke became involved in a dispute over herring traders in 1391. The same year his uncle, the duke of Gloucester, was authorized to negotiate with the Teutonic Knights, probably over the failed trade agreement of 1388, as well as joining the reisa. In the event, bad weather put paid to both.61

The conflation of the material and the idealistic that patterned the whole tapestry of crusading and holy war could lead to its unravelling. The decades of war in the Baltic had created no lasting advantage to either side. Lithuania had not driven the Germans into the sea; the Teutonic Knights, despite some notable triumphs, failed to restrain the rise of Lithuania or prevent its union with Poland and consequent conversion in 1386. Once their main adversary had abandoned paganism, the raison d’être of the crusades and, some argued, of the Teutonic Knights’ rule in Prussia and Livonia itself was called into question. Despite the rhetoric of holy war against a now non-pagan ‘infidel’, the political battle lacked any obvious religious element, as the order jockeyed for position and control by trying to set Lithuania and Poland against each other. With each, the order achieved some successes in the 1390s, coinciding with a revival of foreign military aid, on occasion with larger armies even than those of the 1360s and 1370s. Dobryzn was briefly annexed in the 1390s and Samogitia occupied between 1398 and 1406. Yet the strategy of divide and rule collapsed when Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen, almost all the upper hierarchy and 400 brothers were killed at the battle of Tannenberg (or Grünwald) on 15 July 1410 by a much larger Lithuanian-Polish army.62

The defeat at Tannenberg did not end the Teutonic Knights’ rule in Prussia. Marienberg held out against the Lithuanians and the final territorial losses were minimal. It did not end the Baltic crusade. There had been a significant number of crusaders from across Germany and possibly even a few Frenchmen at the battle, and further reinforcements arrived over the next three years from Germany and Burgundy. But there is no hard evidence that non-Germans campaigned after 1413, perhaps because of the renewal of the Hundred Years War in 1415 following a quarter of a century’s interlude. Already before Tannenberg, there had been a decline in non-German crusades. After, traditional wells of support such as England seemed to have dried completely. From 1423, even the Germans stayed away. It was difficult to persuade onlookers to regard Tannenberg as a Hattin-like defeat for Christendom, not least because it was not. The Council of Constance (1414–18), which healed the great papal schism (1378–1417), witnessed a violent debate between the order’s apologists, eager to gain conciliar approval for a condemnation and crusade against Poland, and the Polish advocate Paul Vladimiri, who with conviction but unsound canon law attempted to cast the Teutonic Knights as unchristian in their wars and alliances and illegitimate as rulers of Prussia.63 Although Vladimiri’s case, including a radical assault on non-Holy Land crusades, gained few adherents, the council effectively conducted a trial of the order’s methods and mission. In 1418, the order escaped censure, but it failed to gain support for a crusade against its enemies. Instead, the rulers of Poland and Lithuania were appointed papal vicars-general in their promised war against the schismatic Russians. Any suggestion that, as some of the order’s more extreme partisans tried to insist, the Poles were unchristian was thereby decisively repudiated. The proceedings at Constance left a stain on the order’s reputation of hypocrisy, tyranny and making war on Christians which proved indelible.

The last foreign crusade to help the Teutonic Knights ended in 1423. The rest of the fifteenth century saw the order’s rule in Prussia pared on two sides, by their own landowners and burghers and by Poland. After a thirteen years’ war (1454–66), these two opponents combined to wreck the integrity of the order’s rule in Prussia. At the Treaty of Thorn in 1466, west Prussia was relinquished, including the order’s seat at Marienberg and most of the earliest conquests dating back to the mid-thirteenth century. The new capital of the eastern rump was fixed at Königsberg; the Grand Masters became Polish clients. Occasionally, Teutonic Knights engaged in holy war. In 1429 a detachment fought the Ottoman Turks on the invitation of their ally and protector Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Hungary. In Livonia a semblance of the order’s original function remained, in the interminable struggle with the Russians. However, the order seemed no longer able to recruit crusaders for itself and popes, quite willing to issue crusade bulls in wars against Turks and heretics, declined to reintroduce formal crusading into the politics of what was now eastern Latin Christendom. Even when repeatedly begged for a crusade bull to help the Livonia order against the Russians between 1495 and 1502, Alexander VI refused. The Baltic crusade was over, an experiment in holy war that had run its course. In 1525, the Prussian order secularized itself, to be followed by the Livonian convent in 1562.

In a sense, the decline of the Teutonic Knights and the Baltic crusade came as a consequence of their success. Together, they made the Baltic part of Christendom and thus became redundant. The Baltic crusades played their part in one of the most decisive processes of infra-European colonization since the barbarian invasions of Late Antiquity. While this expansion rode commercial and technological advantages, it adopted, at least into the fourteenth century, a self-consciously religious definition of identity. The crusades did not drive the expansion of German, Danish or Swedish power. Wider cultural, economic, demographic and social forces did that. By articulating these expansionist and aggressive impulses in religious terms, crusading offered a particular vocabulary, at once practical and inspirational, that could service self-referential ideologies and self-righteous policies of domination. Holy war gave Prussia, Livonia, Estonia, even Finland a pedigree as well as a legitimacy to compensate for a lack of history, always a difficulty in conquered lands and new polities. Holy symbols – physical, human, institutional – achieved political, social and legal significance, the Catholic churches and churchmen presiding over the transmission of a distinctive western European culture even where the underlying processes of trade, settlement and land ownership remained resolutely secular. It says something for medieval rationality that at no time was this alliance of the material and religious taken for granted. When its contradictions became too egregious, crusading in the Baltic was abandoned, not necessarily because it was bad business, but because it had degenerated into at best a sham and at worst a lie.

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