Land of the Teutonic Knights

Michael O. Varhola

The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem was a Catholic military religious society formed around 1190 in the city of Acre in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and we can see below at lower left a depiction of Acre during this period that was created in the 13th century. This order has come to be more commonly known as the Teutonic Knights, a reference in Latin to their Germanic origins. 

The Teutonic Order was formed to establish hospitals and help Christians during their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and played an important role there for about 20 years. Eventually, the order spread its influence throughout northern Europe, having its greatest and most lasting impact in what are now the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland.

As we can see below in this page from the Codex Manesse, a book produced in the 14th century in Zurich, the Teutonic Knights wore white surcoats emblazoned with black crosses. They sometimes used as their coat of arms what is referred to as a cross pattée — which we can below at upper left — and their motto in German was "Helfen, Wehren, Heilen," or "Help, Defend, Heal." As we shall see, however, they had ambitions that went far beyond this benign mission statement.

After Christian military forces were driven out of the Holy Land by the Muslim Sultan Saladin, the Teutonic Knights relocated to Transylvania to help defend the southeastern frontier of the Kingdom of Hungary against an invading nomadic people known as the Kipchaks. In 1211, King Andrew II of Hungary granted the Teutonic Knights the territory of Burzenland as a feoff. In 1225, however, the knights attempted to turn this area into an independent state by having themselves placed under papal rather than Hungarian authority, and the king responded by forcibly expelling them from the country.


Conquest of Prussia
For more than two centuries before the arrival of the Teutonic Order, the indigenous people of Prussia, whose tribes are shown on the map above, had withstood many attempts to conquer them. These began in 997 when Duke Boleslaw I of Poland dispatched missionary Adalbert of Prague as part of a military expedition to the region that collapsed when the tribal Old Prussians executed him — as we can see above at lower right in this festive detail from the doors of the Gniezno Cathedral in Poland.

In 1147, Boleslaw IV of Poland and the Kievan Rus alliance of Slavic tribes invaded Prussia but failed to conquer it. Several other attempts followed, and some of the most significant included attacks and crusades directed by Duke Konrad I of Masovia in 1208, 1209, 1219, 1220, and 1222. While most of these efforts were not fruitful they did enjoy success in the southern part of the region, conquering some Prussian lands and those of the Yotvingians. These attacks prompted the Old Prussians to retaliate against Konrad, to include attempting to drive Masovian and Polish forces out of Chelmno Land and Yotvingia, which by that point has been ravaged, partially conquered, and almost completely depopulated.

Acting on the advice of Christian, first bishop of Prussia, Konrad of Masovia, a region in what is now mid-northeastern Poland, also founded the small Order of Dobrzyn, which comprised a group of 15 knights — and we can see their coat of arms above at upper right. This order was soon defeated, however, and, this prompted Konrad to appeal to the Pope for yet another crusade and for help from the Teutonic Knights. This led to several edicts calling for crusades against the Old Prussians, and these lasted for a full six decades and involved many knights from throughout Europe.

Early in 1224, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II announced that Livonia, Prussia, the Sambia Peninsula, and a number of neighboring provinces were to be placed under direct imperial control rather than that of local rulers. At the end of that year, Pope Honorius III announced his appointment of a bishop named William of Modena as the Papal Legate for Livonia, Prussia, and other countries in the region.

Then, in 1225, Andrew II of Hungary expelled the Teutonic Knights from Transylvania, as noted previously, and they proceeded to relocate to the Baltic Sea and, at the invitation of the Polish prince, established themselves in the Chelmno Land region of north-central Poland. 


State of the Teutonic Order
In 1230, the Teutonic Order joined with Masovia to launch the Prussian Crusade, a military campaign intended to Christianize the Baltic pagans, following permission from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for them to do so — which we can see depicted above at lower right in a 19th century painting by German artist Peter Jannsen. The Teutonic Knight’s first step was to seize the Chelmno Land. They then created their own independent State of the Teutonic Order, progressively expanding this crusader state with surrounding lands as they conquered them.

In the image above at upper left we can see Hermann von Salza, who served as Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights during this era, from 1210 to 1239, and guided the establishment and initial expansion of the Teutonic State.

The Teutonic Knights went on to progressively expand their new domain and at various times it included the territories of Courland, Gotland, Livonia, Neumark, Pomerelia, and Samogitia, located in what are now the modern nations of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia. Colonization of these areas by ethnic Germans took place to varying extents in these areas following their acquisition by the order.

We can see here on the map above the presence of the Teutonic Order around 1300; the purple shaded areas at upper right indicate the extent of the Teutonic State, while the dots indicate the location of their commanderies, or regional headquarters, throughout Europe. At lower left above we can see a detail from a bas relief made in the 1300s that shows Teutonic knights battling Lithuanians. 


13th Century
In 1234, the Teutonic Knights absorbed into their ranks the remaining members of the Order of Dobrzyn. Three years later, In 1237, the Teutonic Knights also assimilated another small military order, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, who had been active since 1202, and gained control of their portions of what was known as Terra Mariana, which corresponds to what is now Estonia and Latvia. We can see their coat-of-arms above on the upper right.

In 1243, Papal Legate William of Modena divided Prussia into the bishoprics of Culm, Pomesania, Ermland, and Samland, which became subordinate to the Archbishopric of Riga. Each of these dioceses was administered and financially committed one-third to its priesthood and two-thirds to the Teutonic Order. The canons of Culm, Pomesania and Samland were, however, also members of the Teutonic Order from the 1280s onward, ensuring close control by the knights. Ermland's diocese maintained independence, allowing it to establish its autonomy as the Prince-Bishopric of Ermeland in the third of the territory there that it controlled.

The order’s earliest castles generally consisted of simple buildings attached to fortified enclosures, ranging from single-wing structures with timber towers to red-brick quadrangles, and were often strengthened by the presence of a moat. They typically also included connected communal spaces like dormitories, refectories, kitchens, chapter houses, chapels or churches, and infirmaries.

In the colorful and informative map at center right above, we can see the movements, actions, and extent of the Teutonic Order up to the year 1260. At lower right we can see a tower from the Teutonic Order castle in Torun, Poland.


Early 14th Century
In November 1308, the Teutonic Order seized the city of Danzig, taking advantage of a war between the neighboring states of Poland and the Margraviate of Brandenburg on the one hand with the Duchy of Pomerania on the other. In the course of this action the knights massacred many residents of the city, Polish and German alike. Below at center left we can see a photo of a modern memorial in Danzig to the victims of the 1308 seizure of the city by the Teutonic State.

In an attempt to legitimize their claim to Danzig, in September 1309 the Teutonic State purchased rights to it from Margrave Waldemar of Brandenburg-Stendal for a sum of 10,000 silver Marks under the terms of the Treaty of Soldin. This episode marked the start of a series of disputes between the Teutonic Order, as it continued seizing new territories, and the Kingdom of Poland.

Possession of Danzig by the Teutonic State was disputed by Kings Wladyslaw I and Casimir the Great of Poland, leading to a series of bloody wars between the two powers, as well as lawsuits in the papal court in 1320 and 1333. Peace was finally concluded at Kalisz in 1343, when the Teutonic Order agreed that Poland should have rights to the title Duke of Pomerania and that Polish monarchs should rule the duchy affiliated with it as a fief.

In November 1346, the Teutonic Order purchased the Duchy of Estonia from the King of Denmark for 19,000 silver marks, using its growing economic resources rather than military power to expand its domain.

Below left we can see an image from a German publication of 1870 that shows a Teutonic Knight and, beside him, a member of the Livonian Brotherhood of the Sword sub-order.


Cities in the Teutonic State
Under the governance of the Teutonic State, marshlands were drained and made arable and woodlands were cleared, and many villages, towns, and cities were founded in such areas, including Marienburg and Königsberg, which is today Kaliningrad in Russia. They began construction on their headquarters of Marienburg during the third quarter of the 13th century and continued to develop it until the mid-15th century, by which point it was the largest castle of the order. A settlement grew up alongside it, eventually covering an area of about 62 acres, and was granted town rights in 1286.

Cities founded by the Teutonic Order had a much more regular, rectangular grid of streets than others in the region, indicating their nature as planned communities, as we can see above at upper right in this plan of the city of Königsberg from the 17th century. Above at center right we can see a photograph of the Teutonic Order fortifications at what is now the town of Bytow in northern Poland.

Because of the ongoing conflicts with the Old Prussians these communities were also heavily fortified and guarded by contingents of soldiery. Most such cities were populated predominantly with immigrants from Silesia and Middle Germany, the regions of origin for many of the Teutonic Knights. They were typically granted privileges in accordance with the municipal laws of Magdeburg, the one exception being Elbing, which was founded with the support of Lübeck and thus operated under the provisions of its ordinances.

While the Teutonic State granted its Prussian cities privileges, surrounding territories, and civil and commercial legal codes, it nonetheless allowed these municipalities less independence than that enjoyed by free cities in the Holy Roman Empire.

The regional trading alliance of the Hanseatic League therefore recognized only six Prussian cities — Vraunsberg, Culm, Danzig, Elbing, Königsberg, and Thorn — as full-fledged members, and acknowledged the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order as their sole ruler. Other cities within the Teutonic State were only allowed quasi-membership in the powerful and influential trade organization and not treated like free or fully autonomous cities.


Late 14th Century
In 1367, the Teutonic Knights invaded the Russian territory of Pleskau, now Pskov, prompting the Russians to retaliate against the Hanseatic merchants in Novgorod. This caused the Teutonic State to embargo exports of herring and salt bound for Russia. Trade resumed once again in 1371 but became strained yet again in 1388 in what was an ongoing pattern.

In 1369, the Teutonic Order launched a crusade against the pagan Lithuanians and were victorious against them the following year at the Battle of Rudau, where they had significant assistance from English knights. This marked a period of friendly relations with England, and the Teutonic State encouraged the presence of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London, an organization that specialized in the export of cloth and was expanding into the Baltic. They allowed the English to open outposts in the Teutonic State cities of Danzig and Elbing, which caused tensions with the Hanseatic League, which was already engaged in trade disputes with Richard II of England.

Richard, however, was displeased with the results of his negotiations with the Hanseatic League, and in 1385 his navy attacked the ships of three league members, among them six Prussian vessels. In response, the Teutonic State immediately terminated all trade with the English and pressed for a renewal of the military alliance that it had participated in against Denmark 15 years before and to turn it against England. Other league members did not support this course of action, however, and preferred to fall back on retaliatory actions like confiscation of English merchandise and to continue negotiations. In 1388, Richard II reconfirmed trade privileges between England and the Hanseatic League, and in return the Prussian cities permitted the merchant adventurers to return. The Teutonic State remained at odds with the rest of the Hanseatic League in disputes the same year with Philip the Bold of Burgundy regarding league privileges in Flemish cities. In this case, a majority of Hanseatic League members decided on an embargo against the Flemish cities, while the Prussians instead favored negotiations.

Theoretically, the Teutonic State lost its pretense for further expansion during this era, when the Christianization of Lithuania began in 1385, but its trade endeavors had not reduced an inclination toward military activity. It thereafter proceeded to embark upon numerous campaigns against its Christian neighbors, including the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Novgorod Republic. The Teutonic Order helped facilitate these conquests with mercenaries hired from throughout Europe to augment its feudal levies, something its strong economic base allowed it to do, and it also managed to maintain a strong naval presence in the Baltic Sea.

We can see below at left a map that shows the activities and boundaries of the Teutonic State during much of the 14th century. Below at center left is a statue at the castle in Marienburg of Winrich von Kniprode, who served as Grand Master of the order from 1351 to 1382, longer than anyone else. 

Economics & Trade Wars
Suffice it to say that the Teutonic State wielded significant economic power, both because of the resources that could be derived from its vast territories and because of its ability to benefit from lucrative regional trade routes.

One of the most important officers of the Teutonic State was the Großschäffer, more-or-less a Chief Financial Officer for key locations like Marienburg and Königsberg who was responsible for buying and selling commodities, procuring goods, and managing credit, investments, and real estate holdings. They managed these operations through a network of commanderies and agencies spread over much of Central, Western, and Southern Europe and the Holy Land, and wielded considerable influence over the flow of trade and agreements that extended well beyond their own borders.

Valuable commodities of note produced within the Teutonic State included grain, exports of which were managed from Marienburg, and amber, exports of which were managed from Königsberg. Major imports included spices like saffron, ginger, and pepper; wine from France and the Rhineland; and both iron and steel.

The Teutonic State declined to become involved in conflicts between Denmark and the Hanseatic League, in which a number of its cities were prominent members, until the Danes seized several Prussian merchant ships on their way to England. That, however, prompted its Grand Master to push for a war alliance against Denmark and its members attacked the Danes on both land and sea beginning in 1367. Denmark eventually capitulated in its war against the alliance and in 1370 signed the Treaty of Stralsund, which among other things forced it to surrender several of its castles and fortresses for a period of 15 years.

Beginning in the late 1380s, Baltic Sea piracy encouraged by King Albert of Sweden, primarily intended to harm the interests of Denmark, caused problems that included impeding the trade of herring and tripling the prices of fish in Prussia. It was not until 1395, however, after treaties had been arranged that would prevent Denmark from being able to take advantage of a Swedish defeat, that the Teutonic State was willing to take military action. At that point, it joined forces with the Hanseatic League and over a five-year period their joint naval task force cleared the Baltic of pirates.

Above at top right of center is a painting of a Medieval marketplace by 16th century Dutch artist Pieter Aertson. Below it is an illustration from an illuminated manuscript from the late 13th or early 14th century depicting a battle at sea. Above at far right is a very detailed and appealing image that accompanied the section on maritime law in the book of Hamburg municipal code from 1497. 


15th Century
On the eve of the 15th century, the Teutonic State had reached the height of its power, under Grand Master Konrad von Jungingen. Revenue from its cities allowed it to maintain a significant military force of Teutonic Knights, their retinues, Prussian peasant levies, and German mercenaries, and its naval forces dominated the Baltic from bases in Prussia and Gotland.

In 1402, Brandenburg pawned its territory of Neumark to the Teutonic State, which kept it until it was redeemed it the mid-1450s. Possession of this territory by the order strengthened ties between it and its secular counterparts in northern Germany, but exacerbated its already hostile relationship with the union of Poland and Lithuania.

In 1407, however, Grand Master Konrad died from a bout of illness. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Ulrich von Jungingen, and under him the Teutonic State began to collapse and suffer from crippling war debts, internal political strife, and continuous warfare with Poland-Lithuania. In 1408, the Teutonic order tried to remediate its financial problems by selling the island of Gotland to Denmark, a first major step in the reduction of its holdings.

Two years later, however, the Teutonic State suffered a mortal blow. In 1410, war broke out between the Teutonic Knights and Pomerania on the one hand, and a Polish-Lithuanian alliance supported by Tatar and Ruthenian auxiliaries. Poland and Lithuania decisively defeated the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grunwald, one of the biggest military engagements of the Middle Ages. We can see that battle depicted below left in an epic 1878 nationalist painting by Polish artist Jan Matewko.

The Teutonic Order managed to withstand the siege of its redoubt at Marienburg and, in 1411, concluded an armistice with Poland under the First Peace of Thorn. Its power had been broken, however, and from that point onward it began to decline steadily. Among other things, its Livonian branch withdrew from its ranks and joined the Livonian Confederation that was established in 1422. 

In March, local aristocrats and Hanseatic cities that included Danzig, Elbing, Kneiphof, and Thorn founded the Prussian Confederation to free themselves from the dominion of the Teutonic State, which taxed them increasingly heavily and would not give them the privileges they believed were their due.

In 1454, the Prussian Confederation asked King Casimir IV of Poland to become its head and, when he agreed, the War of the Cities broke out between it and the Teutonic State. In 1466, this war was concluded with the Second Peace of Thorn, which called for the order to cede the western half of its territories to the Polish crown and for the eastern portion to become a fief of Poland.

In the map below we can see the Teutonic State as it appeared in 1466. 


16th Century & Decline
In 1515, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I made a marriage alliance with Sigismund I of Poland-Lithuania and from that point onward the empire withdrew its support for actions by the Teutonic Order against Poland.

A decade later, in 1525, Albert of Brandenburg resigned as Grand Master and converted to Lutheranism, thereby becoming Duke of Prussia and a vassal of Poland, and soon after the order lost its territories in the Protestant parts of Germany and Livonia.

The Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire continued to hold its claim to Prussia and furnished grand masters of the Teutonic Order, who were merely titular administrators, but managed to retain many of the Teutonic holdings elsewhere. 

The order itself did keep its considerable holdings in Catholic areas of Germany for nearly three more centuries, until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte conquered those areas and ordered the dissolution of the Order, causing it to lose the last of its secular lands.

In the image above at top right is the Teutonic Order’s castle at Marienburg, now Malbork, Poland. Above at lower right is a reliquary made in Elbing in 1388 for a Teutonic Knight that became a military Trophy of Polish King Wladislaus in 1410. Above at right of center is a German familial coat-of-arms that has had the symbol of the Teutonic order incorporated into it.


Legacy of the Order
During the period between the two World Wars, imagery of the Teutonic Knights was resurrected for use in pro-German propaganda, something that resonated with many German nationalists. We can see an example of this below at left in a1920 poster from the conservative German National People's Party showing a Teutonic knight being attacked by Poles and socialists with a caption that says "Save the East." What strikes me about this poster as much as anything, however, is just how maniacal the Teutonic Knight looks, even though he is supposed to be the protagonist of the conflict.

Nazi ideology and propaganda tapped into the imagery and history of the Teutonic Order both before and during World War II, and sought to present its conquest of the Baltic as a foreshadowing of planned Nazi conquests and German expansion eastward. Heinrich Himmler himself is, indeed, known to have conceived of his SS as a modern reincarnation of the Teutonic Order and to have had an interest in the mythology surrounding it. 

A completely opposite approach to the imagery and reputation of the Teutonic Order was taken in Eastern Europe. Polish nationalists, for example, used the knights as an iconic shorthand for Germans in general and conflated the two into an easily-recognizable image of the enemy. And the Teutonic Knights are unequivocally the ogreish villains of the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film Aleksandr Nevskii, a Soviet propaganda film that nonetheless presaged what the Baltic States and Russia would suffer following Nazi invasion of their territories in 1941. We can see a still from this film below at middle in an image that clearly casts the knights in an ominous light.

Despite Nazi use of imagery associated with the Teutonic Knights in propaganda, however, and the fact that in 1929 the order became a purely religious, non-military institution, German authorities abolished the organization in 1938 and persecuted its members. This was due mostly to Hitler’s and Himmler’s suspicion of Roman Catholicism and belief that any organizations associated with it were tools of the Vatican and a potential threat to their fascist regime.

In 1945, however, upon the fall of the Nazi government, the Teutonic Order re-established itself and today exists as a charitable and ceremonial organization that confers honorary knighthoods and is active throughout Central Europe. We can see here in the image at right some Teutonic Knights following behind a group of Knights of the Holy Sepulchre in a procession in Paderborn, Germany, in 2012.