The Baltic Crusades:
First attempt to convert Baltic pagans, led by Bremen-based
1184 First Christian church built in Livonian
village of Uexküll (present-day Ikskile, in Latvia).
1186 Meinhard consecrated as the first Bishop of
Uexküll. He establishes the first permanent Christian entity in the Baltics.
1196 New Bishop of Uexküll, Berthold assembles the
first crusading army in the Baltics. Serious hostilities between Christians and pagans
begin. A segment of the Livonian pagans forcibly converted within two years.
1199 After the death of Berthold in battle, Albert
becomes Bishop of Uexküll. He arrives with an army and the Baltic Crusade begins.
1201 Bishop Albert begins to transform a small
Livonian fishing village into the seat of the Bishopric-Riga.
1202 The Livonian Order-the first standing
Christian army in the Baltics-is formed.
1203-04 A chieftain of a large Livonian tribe,
Kauppo, makes a pilgrimage to Rome to meet with the Pope. The convert and loyal supporter
of the Bishopric impresses the pontiff. He pledges to help the Crusade, which is led by
1208 The lands known today as Latvia firmly under
the control of Bishop Albert. Various tribes that today make up Latvians, including the
Letts and Kurs, succumb to Christianity. Merchants from Germanic lands settle in Riga and
throughout the region.
1211 Bishop Albert lays the cornerstone for the
Dome Cathedral in Riga.
1217 The Livonian Order's campaigns into Estonia
begin with the taking of Fellin (Viljandi in Estonia) and the killing of Estonian tribal
1218-19 Heeding the call of assistance from Bishop
Albert, Danish forces move against northern Estonia. After a historic battle the Danes
conquer the village of Lindanäs (modern day Tallinn).
1219-1240 Duke Mindaugas unites Lithuania.
1220 All of Estonia under the control of either the
Livonian Order or the Danish Crown.
1223 Peasants from the island of Saaremaa lead an
uprising that retakes most of Estonia, except for Tallinn. They are subjugated again by
1234 Veterans of the Crusades in the Middle East
invited to stop the invasion by pagan Prussians (a Baltic cousin of the Lithuanians-the
name was later adopted by their Germanic conquerors) into Christian lands. The group
establishes itself as the Teutonic Knights.
1236 After a disastrous defeat by Lithuanians at
the Battle of Saule, the Livonian Order collapses, becoming merely a northern branch of
the Teutonic Knights.
1242 The Russian forces, led by Prince Alexander
Nevsky, defeat the crusaders in the historic battle on the frozen Lake Peipsi. A frontier
between the German Order and Russia remains at that point for many centuries.
1252 The Teutonic Knights push ahead and take the
Lithuanian city of Klaipeda from local Baltic tribes, cutting off Lithuania's access to
the Baltic Sea until the 1920s. The city is renamed Memel.
1253 Squeezed by the Knights from almost all sides,
Mindaugas sues for peace and agrees to accept Christianity. Mindaugas is crowned King with
the Pope's assent and is considered an equal to all kings in Europe. Samogitia
(Lithuania's lowlands) rejects the Mindaugas deal and continues its war against the
1255 The stronghold of Königsberg is built by the
Teutonic Knights. Centuries later it becomes the force which unites Germany. It's now
1263 King Mindaugas is murdered by internal enemies
and chaos resumes.
1284 Teutonic Knights fully subjugate the
Prussians, who eventually become extinct as a people and are assimilated by Germans, Poles
and Lithuanians. The German conquerors adopt the name Prussians for themselves.
1316 Accession of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas,
who continues to enlarge Lithuanian territory to the Russian lands east and south of
Lithuania. Germanic forces are held from taking Lithuanian territory.
1343-46 Estonian peasants lead an uprising against
the Danes. Though the revolt, known as the St. George's Night uprising, is repelled, the
Danes sell their lands in the northern part of Estonia to the Livonian Order for 10,000
1382 Lithuania is forced to give up Samogitia-a
holdout from Christian conversion to the Germanic crusaders. The Teutonic Knights rule
1386 Strains of wars hit Lithuania, and Grand Duke
Jogaila contrives a plan to secure the region. He marries Polish Queen Jadwiga and the
Union of Kreva creates a monarchical link between the two states. Lithuania-Poland becomes
the most powerful entity in the region for centuries. This also entails Lithuania to
1410 Lithuanian forces, led by Grand Duke Vytautas
with a combined army of Russians, Tatars, Poles and Czechs, defeat the Teutonic Knights at
a historic battle near the villages of Grünwald and Tannenberg (in present-day Poland).
The battle is named Zalgiris by the Lithuanians. The loss ends the military threat of the
Teutonic Knights for good. The Order has never been disbanded and still exists today as a
compiled by Mel Huang
At the turn of the 13th century, after trying and failing to conquer the Holy Land,
crusading Christians looked around for easier pickings. They looked towards the last
unconquered piece of pagan real estate in Europethe eastern coast of the Baltic Sea.
The ancient Chronicles of Henry of Livonia
(1227) provides a rich, descriptive account of the dramatic events during those crucial
years when German knights completed their subjugation of Livoniathe name at the time
for Latvia and Estonia. (see Chronology sidebar).
To follow are excerpts from those chronicles:
The German knights established their
first foothold in Riga in 1201, and over the next decades imposed their rule over most of
the rest of the region. With Riga firmly in their hands, much of the crusader activity
focused on Estonian tribes to the north who fiercely resisted the attacks from Riga. Often
Estonian tribes themselves sacked Christian settlements. Naval battles were common among
the seafaring crusaders and Estonians.
The knights labored long with their companions in the struggle with the rough sea
and at length came to a region of Estonia. The Estonians, wishing to take their lives and
possessions, attacked them with ten pirate ships and twelve other ships. God preserved His
people, however. They suffered neither adversity nor sorrow from the enemy; rather, one of
the pirate ships was broken to pieces by the Christians, some of the pagans were killed,
and others miserably drowned in the sea. They hooked another pirate ship with an iron hook
and tried to drag it toward themselves. The pagans, however, wishing rather to be
endangered in the sea than to be killed by the Christians, jumped from the ship one by
one. While they fell into the danger of death, the other ships departed and escaped.
Conflicts among the native Baltic
tribes themselves were also common. The crusaders often took advantage of this to further
their cause, to divide and conquer. The Latvian-based Semgalls allied themselves with the
German knights and frequently joined in attacks against the Lithuanians, who staged
attacks as far afield as Estonia.
"In the seventh year 1205, about lent, when these tribes are more accustomed to
engage in war, the Lithuanians moved against Estonia with a force of almost two thousand
men. They descended along the Daugava River and passed by the city. After a few days,
Viesturs, a noble of the Semgalls, hearing about the Lithuanian expedition, came hurriedly
to Riga and spoke in admonition to the Germans for having permitted the enemy to cross
their boundaries peacefully. Although they did not wish, because of the weakness of their
forces, to fight before their ruler Bishop Albert's return, Viesturs, being a warlike man,
excited them to battle and promised to bring a great many Semgalls to their aid....
When the army arrived, hostages were delivered into
the hands of the Germans and, their loyalty thus demonstrated, the Semgalls obtained both
help and friendship. The Germans went out to the army in a high place where they and the
Semgalls awaited the return of the Lithuanians....
At length the Lithuanians returned with numerous
captives and indescribable booty in flocks and horses, entered Livonia, and proceeded
gradually from village to village. At last they turned aside to the fort of Kauppo and
trusting the peace of the Livonians, spent the night among them. The scouts of the Germans
and Semgalls inquired discreetly about their return and announced this to their own army.
When they heard these reports, the whole army
rejoiced and all prepared in rivalry for the fight. The Lithuanians came with all their
loot and captives, who numbered more than a thousand, divided their army into two parts,
placed the captives in the middle, and because of excessive depth of snow, marches single
file over one path. But as soon as the first of these discovered the footprints of those
who had gone before, they stopped, suspecting an ambush. Thus the last in line overtook
the first and all were collected in one formation with the captives.
When the Semgalls saw their great multitude, many of
them trembled and, not daring to fight, wished to seek safer places. Thereupon certain of
the Germans approached the knight Conrad and begged instantly that they go first into
battle with the enemies of Christ. They asserted that it was better to go to death
gloriously for Christ than, to the confusion of their tribe, to take flight dishonorably.
Conrad, with his horse and himself well-armored, like a knight, attacked the Lithuanians
with the few Germans who were on hand.
After a few years, the Estonian
tribes were losing ground to the crusaders. Eventually, the German crusaders staged an
important assault on the invasion of Fellin, now Viljandi, which was the stronghold of
The pagans would listen to nothing about God or the Christian name. They rather
threatened war and donned the arms of the Germans which they had seized at the gate of the
fort during the first engagement. On the heights of the fort they gloried in these arms,
they prepared themselves for war, and with their shouting they jeered and mocked at the
But the Letts, allies of the Germans, having taken
captives earlier and slaughtered them, threw them into the moat and threatened to do the
same to those who were in the fort. The archers, meanwhile, killed many men and drove them
all back to the stronghold, while other men built a tower. The Letts went up to the tower,
killed many men on the battlements with arrows and spears, wounded many, and for five days
a very great battle raged. The Estonians strove to burn down the first pile of wood by
casting a great deal of fire from the fort onto the carts. The Livonians and Letts threw
ice and snow and put it out.
Arnold, a German crusader, labored there day and
night. At last he was hit by a stone and crossed over into the brotherhood of the martyrs.
He was an extremely religious man and was always praying. He found, as we hope, that for
which he prayed.
The Germans built a machine and, by hurling stones
night and day, they broke down the fortified places and killed men and innumerable beasts
of burden in the fort. Since the Estonians had never seen such things, they had not
strengthened their houses against the force of such missiles. The Germans followed in
arms, removed the planks and, on the inside, found another wall which they could not get
through. The men of the fort gathered up above and forced the Germans back by throwing
stones and logs. The Germans came down, brought flames to the fort and set it on fire
On the next day, when the burning was over, they
replaced everything, and the survivors nerved themselves once again for the defense. There
were, however, many corpses of the slain in the fort, there was a shortage of water, and
nearly everyone was wounded, so that now they gave out. On the sixth day the Germans said:
"Do you still resist and refuse to acknowledge our Creator?" To this they
replied: "We acknowledge your God to be greater than our gods. By overcoming us, He
has inclined our hearts to worship Him. We beg, therefore, that you spare us and
mercifully impose the yoke of Christianity upon us as you have upon the Livonians and
Henry of Livonia documents another
battle against the Estonians. The excerpt demonstrates the role of the Livonian Kauppo,
who supported the Germans and who, to this day, is still remembered by Estonians and
Latvians as one of the greatest traitors in their history.
The crusaders donned their weapons, put the trappings on their horses, and with
their infantry, the Livonians, and their whole company crossed the Aa river, went on
through the night, and approached the pagans. They arranged the army and instructed it for
the war. The infantry they sent ahead on the major road. The knights, however, followed on
the road which leads to the right. The infantry marched cautiously and in orderly fashion.
When morning broke they came down from the mountain and saw the fort and the pagan army,
and the valley was between them. Immediately they beat joyfully upon their drum and
enlivened the spirits of their men with their musical instruments and their song. They
called down God's mercy upon them and swiftly hurried towards the pagans.
After crossing a little stream they halted for a
moment to collect themselves in a group. When the pagans saw them, they were terrified by
the unmistakable prospect. They ran, got their shields; some of them rushed to the horses,
others leaped over the barricade, and they all assembled in one group. They troubled the
air with their shouts and came out in a great multitude to meet the Christians, throwing a
shower of spears upon them. The Christians caught the spears with their shields, and when
the pagans had run out of spears, the Christians drew their swords, marched closer and
commenced the fight.
The wounded fell and the pagans fought manfully. The
knights saw the strength of the pagans and suddenly charged through the center of the
enemy. The trappings of the horses threw terror into the enemy. Many of them fell to the
ground, the others turned to flight, and the Christians pursued those who fled. They
caught them and killed them on the road and in the fields. The Livonians from the fort
went out and met the fleeing pagans. They scattered them on the road and enveloped them.
Then they slaughtered them, up to the German lines. They pursued the Estonians so that few
of them escaped and the Germans even killed some of the Livonians as if they were
This defeat opened up an avenue for the crusaders to march across Estonia and to
eventually force the conversion of all Estonians. It was a devastating blow and soon all
of the Estonians were under the subjugation of either the Germans or the Danes, who
grabbed northern Estonia.
Excerpts from The Baltic Crusade by William L. Urban,
Lithuanian Research and Study Center, Chicago, Illinois, 1994.
CITY PAPER-The Baltic States