The Prussian Crusades – The fascinating story

The Prussian Crusades were full of thirteenth century intrigue and drama. Here, Robert Van Ness follows up his article on Prussia’s early beginnings and tells us the story…


The Teutonic Knights wasted little time once they began establishing themselves in the unstable Baltic region. They came to crusade against the native Prussian pagans, who had a centuries-long history of proving themselves to be unruly, as well being unaccepting of Catholicism. The native Prussians also seemed untrustworthy of anything coming out of the west, and for good reason. Rome had sent envoys to the area, the Danish had sent armies, and the Poles had signaled intent to take lands for themselves. Each instance involved some degree of bloodshed and/or corruption. The Teutonic arrival, in Prussian eyes, would be no different. The Prussians were correct.

After initial wrangling over territorial disputes, Grandmaster Hermann von Salza sent 7 Teutonic Knights and about 100 lesser troops to take Vogelsang in Masovia. A castle had been attempted in the area a year before, in 1229, but the Prussians massacred the builders. After the Teutons arrived, however, the Prussians could not reverse their negative fortunes. The small army established a foothold, and then they completed the attempted castle. A year later a fresh force of 200 arrived to reinforce the Teutonic claim. Though this action may seem innocuous in the grand scheme, it did signal the beginning of the Teutonic Crusades, and thus a great historical shift in Prussian livelihood, that, when the Crusades were completed would set events in motion. When those Crusades were finished, events were set in motion that would affect Central and Eastern Europe for centuries.


The Beginnings

The Teutonic Order began conducting yearly campaigns into the region after their first venture in 1230. These raids represented a historical shift in that they were coming predominately from the west, out of the Holy Roman Empire, instead of out of the east from Polish or Russian lands. Promises from the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor spurred many Germans to emigrate into the newly conquered lands. This occurrence, accompanied with the consistent, yearly campaigns, ensured success, where every earlier attempt met with failure. Further Teutonic success ensured that the Prussian region would become German.

The Prussian Crusades – The fascinating story

A map of the tribes encountered by the Teutonic Knights during their Prussian Crusades.

Within two years, the Crusaders were warring against Pomesania. A bit of chance aided the Knights when a Prussian commander defected to the Teutons. He helped steer the Crusaders through Prussian defenses toward the main castle at Rogow. Rogow was no match for the attackers, and once it fell, neither were the other area defenses. Thorn was captured, and then the Pomesanian king, Pepin, was tricked into being surrounded. Pope Gregory IX quickly sent 5,000 immigrants to reinforce the Teutonic conquest during the next year, as the Knights continued their Crusade eastward.

1233 witnessed the largest army to march into the region up to that time. A 10,000 strong crusading army was led by the Knights into the remaining Pomesanian regions. They built a fortress at Marienwerder, from which the powerful army launched various attacks against the Pogesanians, who offered a rather stiff resistance. Yet Teutonic cavalry galloped into the fray during a battle along the frozen Sirgune River, and the Pogesanian front disintegrated. Another Teutonic fortress was quickly built at Rehden to ensure Crusading dominance over the newly subjugated lands.


Growing Pains

These successes, oddly, caused a breech between the Teutons and her allies, most notably Konrad of Masovia, in 1235. Konrad claimed land that was not to be given to him, and the Knights refused to cede the disputed lands to him. Eventually Konrad pulled out of any future crusades, while the Teutons began acquiring the remaining faltering knightly orders in the Baltic, such as the Sword Brothers, who were all but decimated by the Livonians further north of Teutonic claims.

A new ally, Henry III, Margrave of Meissen, arrived to aid the Teutons as they marched along the Vistula River in present day Poland. The newly established immigrant towns also supplied ample support, which allowed the Crusaders the freedom to push further into pagan lands. The Teutons hammered the Bartians, Natangians, and Warmians in successive engagements between the campaigning years 1238 and 1240. 

The attack against the Warmians is of special note, because the Warmians slaughtered a Teutonic outfit, which spurred an even larger crusading force onward against the pagan defenders. When the pagan commander, Kodrune, realized that holding out against the numerically superior force was hopeless, he begged his army to surrender and convert. The Warmians would hear none of it, and killed Kodrune before they were, as Kodrune presciently understood would happen, destroyed.

Teutonic successes brought more Papal recognition in 1243. The newly conquered lands were demarcated across four new provinces – Culm, Pomesania, Ermeland, and Samland. What had once not been Germanic lands were now being inhabited by droves immigrating eastward out of the Holy Roman Empire. But the region was not yet pacified. In fact, the gains made during the initial Teutonic Crusades were threatened by a resurgent Prussian uprising beginning in 1242.


First Prussian Rebellion

A former Teutonic ally, Duke Swantopelk of Pomerellia, was spooked by the rapid crusading gains. Swantopelk then switched allegiances, and began funding, supplying, and training the Prussians against the Knights in 1242. The Teutons also found themselves without their Polish allies in the rebellion, because the Poles were warring with each other over domestic issues. 

For two years the Prussians dragged the Teutons into wooded battles, where the heavier armored knights could not maneuver as easily. Defeat followed defeat for the Teutons, but the Prussians lacked engineering skills needed to erect proper siege-works in order to destroy the many Teutonic fortresses now dominating the countryside. Thus a seeming impasse was reached in 1244, which for the most part lasted until 1249. That is until the Germans used another weapon, politics.

German connections swayed Swantopelk away from the Prussians once again. The new Pope, Urban IV, entered diplomatic wrangling, as did the Polish princes, who wanted to take Swantopelk’s land. Swantopelk found himself unable to continue the Prussian resurgence, and was forced to switch allegiances once again. Regardless of the change, the Prussians still won further battles after Swantopelk’s defection, but by 1253, the Teutons were once again in control, and they could resume their crusade against the Samland region.


The Crusades Resume against Sambia

Their work was not yet complete in the 1250s; in fact, quite a few more campaigns would be undertaken before the Prussian lands were declared ‘Christianized’, but the seeds of future hatreds were brutally sewn during this period. Notably the Germans, who were not native to the region began dominating the Poles and Slavs, who did claim the Baltic lands as ancestral. In order for the early German settlers to make what was later called Lebensraum the pagan, or less-than-civilized, would have to either convert or die. To that end, the Crusades continued in 1252.

The Sambian peoples had not yet been pacified. A new army led by Heinrich Stango aimed to pierce directly through Samland, but was met head on by formidable resistance at Vistula Lagoon. The Sambians routed the Knights, killed Stango, and awaited a Crusading response. The response came in the form of a concerted Dominican effort to raise a massive army for the time, 60,000 men. The enormous army of Bohemians, Saxons, Moravians, and Austrians met the Sambians at the Battle of Rudau. The defenders stood little chance under such an enormous army. The main Sambian army surrendered, and was hastily baptized. The Crusaders then continued to march into Sambian territory, and either baptized or killed inhabitants along the way to conquering the region by January 1255. As normal Teutonic procedure dictated, a series of fortresses were constructed to ensure Teutonic overlordship. Thus fortresses at Memel, Konigsberg, and Wehlau still exist, reminding the onlookers of the hard-fought era.

The Prussian Crusades – The fascinating story

The remains of St. Jacob’s Tower in Wehlau (Znamensk).

The Prussian Crusades Wind Down

The Prussians, however, had one more trick to play. The Livonian branch of the Order continued to reach northeastward into Samogitia, and had some early success. A cease-fire of sorts was signed to end the fighting for two years, but when that treaty ended in 1259, the Samogitians rebelled. They crushed the Crusaders at Skuodas, which sent shockwaves throughout the pagan region. Other Prussians rallied around the Samogitian victory and also rebelled. Together they ran roughshod throughout the largely unguarded regions of Livonia, Poland, and Prussia, because the Knights were mostly away fighting in the Holy Land during this time. After a year of turmoil the Holy Roman Empire concocted an army to assist the remaining Knights in their effort to quell the uprising, and by 1261 the pagans were being unconditionally beaten. Previously subjugated Prussians had enjoyed considerable surrender terms, but the Knights forced the rebels into total serfdom after this uprising. Once again, to ensure control, the Knights dotted the landscape with more fortresses.

The Knights, and Germanic immigrants into the region, were now certain masters of Prussia and the lower Baltic region. All that remained were a few lesser tribes, who still repudiated Catholicism. Minor battles and small uprisings continued to occur for the next 20 years, but nothing could break the increasingly powerful grip the Teutonic Knights held on Prussia. It was theirs, and would be engineered along Holy Roman designs, and the Knights would use their newly won kingdom to launch other crusades deeper into northeastern Europe. Their involvement redrew, and would redraw European boundaries for future generations with painful side effects as will be seen in subsequent posts.


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