Northern Crusades

[by Annie Mosher]

During the High Middle Ages, the Baltic frontier held a singular position as the border between the Catholic West and Orthodox East. The Dvina River, flowing through Livonia, connected the Baltic Sea to Russian city-states, allowing for trade between German and Russian merchants (Crusade and Conversion, xviii). Despite this, the Baltic lands remained largely untouched by Western Europe until the end of the twelfth century when in 1171, following the precedent of the Wendish Crusades, Pope Alexander III declared a crusade against the pagans of Northern Europe. This papal bull offered the same indulgence as crusades to the Holy Land and generated almost three hundred years of crusades against the Baltic tribes (Urban, 128).

The first evidence of attempted conversion in the Baltic predates Alexander’s bull. In the 1160s, Fulco, a Cistercian monk, was appointed Bishop of Estonia, though there is no evidence to suggest he ever resided in his parish (Kala, 7). The first resident bishop was Meinhard, an Augustinian monk who travelled up the Dvina to Üxküll in 1188 (Urban, 130). He began the slow process of converting the local population by building a stone castle to defend them from the Lithuanians. However, his attempts at conversion were largely unsuccessful as demonstrated by the many Livonians who tried to wash off their baptisms in the Dvina (Lieven, 43; Urban, 131). Bertholt’s crusade may have been unsuccessful, but his successor did not give up the mission of conversion. In 1200 Albert raised an army of German crusaders and brought 23 ships against the Livonians. The next year he founded Riga at the mouth of the Dvina. After thirty years of sporadic results from merchant crusades, in 1202 a local missionary named Dietrich founded a military order to lead the battle against the Northern pagans (Kala, 8). The Livonian Sword Brothers conquered Estonia and Kurland by playing locals against natural enemies and Danish crusaders (Urban, 131). On December 29, 1215 Innocent III issued another papal bull calling for a crusade against the Livonians. Unlike previous bulls, this one spurred an organized military response as both the Teutonic Order and Danish crusaders joined the fight for Baltic territory(Kala, 9). In 1236, the Livonian Sword Brothers were absorbed into the Teutonic Order after the Battle of Samogitia. After this victory, the Pope granted the Teutonic Order control over Livonia, though disputes with the Danes over Estonia would continue (Urban, 131). The Danes sold Estonia to the Teutonic Order in 1343 after the last major pagan revolt, in which several hundred Germans were killed (Lieven, 43). Despite the Order’s governance, crusades against Livonia and Estonia continued to be called from 1240-1278 and Teutonic Knights complained that much of the local population had reverted to their pagan beliefs (Kala, 14). The Teutonic Order continued to rule Livonia and Estonia until the Reformation, at which point the Grand Master retired and became a protestant. For four hundred years Estonia and Livonia were ruled by crusaders. No attempts were made at forced conversion until Bertholt, Meinhard’s successor, led a band of merchants from Gotland against the Balts. By this time there had already been two more papal bulls authorizing a Northern Crusade – first from Celestine III in 1195 and again from Innocent III in 1198.

While Lithuania did endure a Teutonic crusade, it was not subjugated as Livonia and Estonia were. Poland had been fighting the Prussian pagans for a decade before Duke Conrad of Masovia invited the Teutonic Order to join in their crusade. By the end of the thirteenth century the Teutonic Knights had conquered all of Eastern Prussia and become independent of Polish control. The dispute between Poland and the Teutonic Order prevented either party from launching a successful crusade against Lithuania. Lithuanians suffered intermittent conversions and attacks until the entire nation was converted by the marriage of Duke Jogaila of Lithuania to Jadwiga of Poland in 1387 (Urban, 129-130). The union between Poland and Lithuania and the later creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth prevented Lithuania from suffering the control of the Teutonic Order.

The Northern Crusades are difficult to incorporate in a singular Baltic narrative. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania did not stand as a united front against the Western invaders. The Livonians sometimes allied with the Germans against Estonians and Lithuanians, while Estonians asked Russian princes for protection. In 1217 Livonians fought with the Germans against the Estonians in the Battle of Fellinn (Lieven, 43). In 1399 Lithuanians joined with the Teutonic Order to defeat the last Baltic pagans (Urban, 130). These mixed loyalties add to the differences between each country. As it was never subjected to foreign rule, Lithuania believes itself to be the strongest of the three nations, but Estonia claims precedence over Latvia because Estonians held out longer against foreign rule. In addition to these divisions, the Baltic States have been separated further by religion. Allied with Poland, Lithuania remained Catholic throughout the Reformation, while the German ruled Estonia and Latvia became Protestant after the collapse of the Teutonic Order (Lieven, 43, 45). The nearest the Baltic States can come to a collective narrative is to mythologize the Balts as the idealized victims of the common Western enemy during the crusades, or, as Anatol Lieven paints the scenario, “an idyllic community of hunters…suddenly attacked by alien warriors in black armour, who outmatch them in weaponry, ferocity and organisation, and slaughter everyone in their path” (Lieven, 42). Prior to European invasion, the Baltic peoples had no literate culture; therefore whatever they know of their own culture comes from outside sources. In the social hierarchy, locals were supplanted by foreign nobility who monopolized government until the end of the nineteenth century (Kala, 4). The lack of a pre-crusade narrative makes it difficult for the Baltic States to establish a cultural history or identity.

Beginning in the twelfth century, the Northern Crusades began a long history of domination for the Baltic States. Ruled by Germans or allied with Poland, the Baltic peoples could not develop what culture they had before Western interference. This cultural suppression and the unclear loyalties during the crusades complicate the crafting of a national history or identity within the modern Baltic States.


Works cited

  •  Crusade and Conversion on the Baltic Frontier 1150-1500, ed. Alan V. Murray (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001).
  • Tiina Kala, “The Incorporation of the Northern Baltic Lands into the Western Christian World,” in Crusade and Conversion.
  • Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
  • William L. Urban, “Crusades in the Eastern Baltic,” in Crusades: The Illustrated History, ed. Thomas Madden (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).