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 Europeâ€”the 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 Livoniaâ€”the 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.
â€œThe 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.â€
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.â€
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 Estonian tribes.
â€œThe 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 army.
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 Letts.â€
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.
â€œThe 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 Estonians.â€
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.