The Northern Crusades: Europe's Last Pagan Kingdoms
Early Efforts at Christianization in Northern Europe
The medieval era was a tumultuous time in European history. The collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Germanic invasions left Europe in shambles. Europe was left without a kingdom, and as a result the Catholic Church took on the responsibility of providing governance. Germanic kingdoms rose to compete with the Church for power and this dynamic created the backdrop for the medieval era.
Eventually the Church and the kingdoms of Europe decided to point their frustration and military capability outward. This led to the Crusades. The Crusades are more commonly known to have taken place to re-conquer the Holy Lands from the Seljuk Turks, but there was another theater of war for the Crusaders. Throughout Northern Europe, Crusaders marched east, but into the pagan kingdoms around the Baltic Sea, not the Muslim kingdoms of the Mediterranean.
The people of Northern Europe were the last to convert to Christianity. The Viking raiders of Denmark and Norway had been a scourge on Christendom throughout France and England, but missionary work brought the Scandinavians into the Christian fold. While the Crusaders of Western Europe had to move abroad to seek out enemies of the Cross, the Scandinavians had only to look to their borders to find pagan kingdoms.
The kingdoms in Latvia, Lithuania and Prussia were the last pagan kingdoms in Europe. These three kingdoms formed the bulwark of a tribal society that split the Catholic kingdoms of Western Europe from the Orthodox city-states of Russia in Eastern Europe. Geography separated these kingdoms from each other, and from the rest of Europe.
The heavily forested region of Northern Europe was difficult to penetrate. In summer the rivers flooded making it impossible to move caravans and cavalry around. In winter the cold and frost would starve an army to death. The harsh conditions of Northern Europe created a short period in which armies could be moved around to fight.
The earliest expansion into the Baltic kingdoms was carried out by the Saxon Dukes of the Holy Roman Empire. The Germanic Dukes that had territory bordering the Prussians expanded by developing fortresses in Prussian territory. Prussia was then divided into two kingdoms, one along the trade routes and rivers that was dominated by Christian Germans, and one inside the forests that remained pagan.
At the same time as Prussia was being divided, the Danes and Swedes advanced along the Baltic coast. Sweden defeated pagan kingdoms in Finland and developed towns there, while Denmark created trade posts along the Baltic coast to trade with pagan tribes that were friendly. In the process of creating towns, Churches were constructed and the Catholic Church expanded into the region.
The Teutonic Order
The early efforts of the Christian powers to expand into the Baltic were not official Crusades, until the coming of the Sword-Brothers. The Sword-Brothers were sanctioned by the Papacy to take Latvia for the Church. During the course of the Crusade the Sword-Brothers converted Livonia, now part of modern Latvia, to Christianity through forced conversion and extermination. The Sword-Brothers became increasingly independent and powerful, until they were defeated and slaughtered during a failed campaign.
The defeat of the Sword-Brothers brought the Teutonic Order to Northern Europe. The Teutonic Order had originally been commissioned to act in the Holy Land. Established as Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem the Teutonic order was forced north as a result of the Arab reclamation of the Holy Land. After the fall of their headquarters in the Levant the Teutonic Order moved into Hungary because the King of Hungary had granted them land. The King of Hungary eventually changed his mind and expelled the Teutonic Knights.
The Teutonic Knights were the most successful of the northern Crusaders. They took over command of the ongoing struggle against the Prussians, and decimated the pagan Prussian kingdom. As the Teutonic Order moved along the Baltic coast they developed a fortress at Marienburg (now Malbork Castle) which was used as their headquarters. The Teutonic Order assimilated all that remained of the Livonian Sword-Brothers. The Teutonic knights at this point had some of the largest territorial holdings in Northern Europe.
The size and military capability of the Teutonic Order brought them into conflict with the Lithuanian kingdom. Lithuania at this time was the last pagan kingdom in Europe. The Teutonic overwhelmed the Lithuanians through a bloody campaign that lasted over a hundred years. The Lithuanians were eventually forced to accept Christianity, but they avoided Teutonic domination by siding with Poland.
The Teutonic Order was victorious for a number of reasons. Throughout the campaign Lithuania was unable to find reliable allies. It was difficult for Catholic kingdoms to side with pagans against an Order with Papal protection. The Teutonic Order also received military support from the rest of Europe. This support combined with the Orders land holdings throughout the Holy Roman Empire allowed the Teutonic Knights to keep a strong, reinforced army to fight the Lithuanians.
The Teutonic Order also led a campaign against the Russians. This campaign was a failure. The Teutonic Order was routed at the Battle of the Ice and was never again able to mount an attack against the Russians.
The Northern Crusades were far more successful than the Crusades to the Holy Land had been. They successfully brought new people into the Christian fold, and maintained their hold until the Second World War. The two kingdoms that were created as a result of the Northern Crusades, Prussia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, dominated Eastern European politics until the unification of Germany. The Teutonic Order was vital to the success of the Northern Crusades, and should be recognized more in the English speaking world for its success.
Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. London: Penguin Group, 2005.