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The Northern Crusades or Baltic Crusades were crusades undertaken by the Christian kings of Denmarkmarker and Swedenmarker, the German Livonian and Teutonic military orders, and their allies against the pagan peoples of Northern Europe around the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Seamarker. Swedish and German Catholic campaigns against Russianmarker Eastern Orthodox Christians are also sometimes considered part of the Northern Crusades.Some of these wars were called crusades during the Middle Ages, but others, including most of the Swedish ones, were first dubbed crusades by 19th century romantic nationalist historians. The east Baltic world was transformed by military conquest: first the Livs, Latgallians and Estonians, then the Semigallians, Curonians, Prussians and the Finns underwent defeat, baptism, military occupation and sometimes extermination by groups of Danes, Germans and Swedes.


The official starting point for the Northern Crusades was Pope Celestine III's call in 1193; but the already Christian kingdoms of Scandinavia and the Holy Roman Empire had started to move to subjugate their pagan neighbors even earlier. The non-Christian people who were objects of the campaigns at various dates included:

Armed conflict between the Baltic Finns, Balts and Slavs who dwelt by the Baltic shores and their Saxon and Danish neighbors to the north and south had been common for several centuries prior to the crusade. The previous battles had largely been caused by attempts to destroy castles and sea trade routes and gain economic advantage in the region, and the crusade basically continued this pattern of conflict, albeit now inspired and prescribed by the Pope and undertaken by Papal knights and armed monks.

Wendish Crusade

The campaigns started with the 1147 Wendish Crusade against the Polabian Slavs (or "Wends") of what is now northern and eastern Germanymarker. The crusade occurred parallel to the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, and continued irregularly until the 16th century.

Livonian Crusade

By the 12th century, the peoples inhabiting the lands now known as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a pagan wedge between increasingly powerful Christian states – Orthodox to their east and Roman Catholic to their west. The difference in creeds was one of the reasons they had not yet been effectively converted. During a period of more than 150 years leading up to the arrival of German crusaders in the region, Estonia was attacked 13 times by Russian principalities, and by Denmark and Sweden as well. Estonians for their part made raids upon Denmark and Sweden. There were peaceful attempts by the Western Christians to convert the Estonians, starting with missions dispatched by Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen in 1045-1072. However, these peaceful efforts seem to have had very limited success.

Campaign against Livonians (1198-1212)

Moving in the wake of German merchants who were now following the old trading routes of the Vikings, a monk named Meinhard landed at the mouth of the Daugava river in present-day Latvia in 1180 and was made bishop in 1186. Pope Celestine III proclaimed a crusade against the Baltic heathens in 1193 and a crusading expedition led by Meinhard's successor, Bishop Berthold of Hanover, landed in Livonia (part of present-day Latvia, surrounding the Gulf of Rigamarker) in 1198. Although the crusaders won their first battle, Bishop Berthold was mortally wounded and the crusaders were repulsed.

In 1199, Albert of Buxhoeveden was appointed by the Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen to Christianise the Baltic countries. By the time Albert died 30 years later, the conquest and formal Christianisation of present-day Estonia and northern Latvia was complete. Albert began his task by touring the Empire, preaching a Crusade against the Baltic countries, and was assisted in this by a Papal Bull, which declared that fighting against the Baltic heathens was of the same rank as participating in a crusade to the Holy Land. Though he landed in the mouth of the Daugava in 1200 with only 23 ships and 500 soldiers, the bishop's efforts ensured that a constant flow of recruits followed. The first crusaders usually arrived to fight during the spring and returned to their homes in the autumn. To ensure a permanent military presence, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword were founded in 1202. The founding by Bishop Albert of the market at Rigamarker in 1201 attracted citizens from the Empire and economic prosperity ensued. At Albert's request, Pope Innocent III dedicated the Baltic countries to the Virgin Mary to popularise recruitment to his army and the name "Mary's Land" has survived up to modern times.

Ruins of the castle in Sigulda.

In 1206 the crusaders subdued the Livonian stronghold in Turaida on the right bank of Gauja river, the ancient trading route to the Northwestern Rus. In order to gain control over the left bank of Gauja, the stone castle was built in Siguldamarker before 1210. By 1211 the Livonian province of Metsepole (now - Limbaži district) and mixed Livonian-Latgallian inhabited county of Idumea (now -Straupemarker) was converted to Roman Catholic faith. The last battle against the Livonians was the siege of Satezele hillfort near to Sigulda in 1212. The Livonians, who had been paying tribute to the East Slavic Principality of Polotskmarker, at first considered the Germans as useful allies. The first prominent Livonian to be christened was their leader Caupo of Turaida. As the German grip tightened, the Livonians rebelled against the crusaders and the christened chief but the uprising was put down. Caupo of Turaida remained an ally of the crusaders until his death in the Battle of St. Matthew's Day in 1217.

The German crusaders enlisted newly baptised Livonian warriors to participate in their campaigns against Latgallians and Selonians (1208-1209), Estonians (1208-1227) and never against Semigallians, Samogitians and Curonians (1219-1290).

Campaign against Latgallians and Selonians (1208-1224)

After subjugation of Livonians the crusaders turned their attention to the Latgallian principalities to the east along the Gauja and Daugava rivers. The military alliance in 1208 and later conversion from the Greek Orthodoxy to Roman Catholic faith of the Principality of Tālava was the only peaceful subjugation of the Baltic tribes during the Nordic crusades. The ruler of Tālava Tālivaldis (Talibaldus de Tolowa) became the most loyal ally of German crusaders against the Estonians, and he died as a martyr and a Catholic in 1215. The war against the Latgallian and Selonian countries along the Daugava waterway started in 1208 by occupation of the Orthodox Principality of Koknesemarker and the Selonian hillfort of Sēlpilsmarker. The campaign continued in 1209 by attack on the Orthodox Principality of Jersika (known as Lettia), accused by crusaders to be the ally of Lithuanian pagans. After defeat the king of Jersika Visvaldis became the vassal of the Bishop of Livonia and received part of his country (Southern Latgale) as a fiefdom. Selonian stronghold Sēlpils was briefly the seat of a Selonian diocese (1218-1226), and then came under the rule of the Livonian Order. Only in 1224, with the division of Tālava and Adzele counties between the Bishop of Rīga and the Order of the Swordbearers, Latgallian countries finally became the possession of German conquerors. The territory of the former Principality of Jersika was divided by the Bishop of Rīga and the Livonian Order in 1239.

Campaign against Estonians (1208-1227)

By 1208, the Germans were strong enough to begin operations against the Estonians, who were at that time divided into eight major and several smaller counties led by elders with limited co-operation between counties. In 1208-27, war parties of the different sides rampaged through Livonian, Northern Latgallian and Estonian counties, with Livonians and Latgallians normally as allies of the Crusaders and Principalities of Polotskmarker and Pskovmarker appearing as allies of different sides at different times. Hill forts, which were the key centres of Estonian counties, were besieged and captured a number of times. A truce between the war-weary sides was established for three years (1213-1215) and it proved generally more favourable to the Germans, who consolidated their political position, while the Estonians were unable to develop their system of loose alliances into a centralised state. The Livonian leader Kaupomarker was killed in battle near Viljandimarker (Fellin) on 21 September 1217, but the battle was a crushing defeat for the Estonians, whose leader Lembitu was also killed. Since 1211, his name had come to the attention of the German chroniclers as a notable Estonian elder and he became the central figure of the Estonian resistance.

The Christian kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden were also greedy for conquests on the Eastern shores of the Baltic. While the Swedes made only one failed foraymarker into western Estonia in 1220, The Danish Fleet headed by King Valdemar II of Denmark had landed at an Estonian town of Lindanisse (present-day Tallinnmarker) in 1219. After the Battle of Lyndanissemarker the Danes established a fortress, which was besieged by Estonians in 1220 and 1223, but held out. Eventually, the whole of northern Estonia was in Danish hands.

The last Estonian county to hold out against the invaders was the island county of Saaremaamarker, whose war fleets had raided Denmark and Sweden during the years of fighting against the German crusaders. A 20,000 strong army under Papal legate William of Modena crossed the frozen sea while the Saaremaa fleet was icebound, in January 1227. Following the defeat of the Estonians, the crusade moved against the Curonians and the Semigallians, Baltic tribes living to the south and west of the river Daugava.

Wars against Curonians and Semigallians (1201-1290)

Already in 1201 Curonians started to battle against the crusaders repeatedly attacking Riga in 1201 and 1210, however the Bishop Albert was considering Courland to be tributary of Valdemar II of Denmark and didn't start the large scale campaign. Only after his death the crusaders concluded a treaty of peaceful submission of Vanemane in 1230, a county with mixed Livonian, Oselianmarker and Curonian population in the norteastern part of Courland. In the same year the papal vice-legat Baldouin of Alnea annulled this agreement and concluded an agreement with the ruler of Bandava in the central Courland Lamekins (Lammechinus rex), delivering his kingdom in the hands of papacy, with Baldouin becaming the popes's delegate in Courland and bishop of Semigallia. However, the Germans complained about him to the Roman Curia, and in 1234 Pope Gregory IX remowed Baldouin as his delegate.After the fatal defeat in the Battle of Saule by Samogitians and Semigallians the remnants of Swordbrothers were reorganised in 1237 as a subdivision of the Teutonic Order and became known as the Livonian Order. In 1242 under the leadership of the master of Livonian Order Andrew of Groningen the crusaders had begun the military conquest of Courland. They defeated the Couronians as far south as Embūte near the contemporary border with Lithuania and founded the main fortress in Kuldīgamarker. Pope Innocent IV alloted in 1245 the Livonian Order two thirds of conquested Courland and one third to the Bishopric of Courland.In the Battle of Durbe the forces of Samogitians and Curonians overpowered the united forces of Livonian and Teutonic Orders in 1260. Crusaders finally subjugated the Curonians in 1267, and concluded the peace treaty stipulating the obligations and the rights of the defeated rivals. The unconquered southern parts of their territories (Ceklis and Megava) were united under the rule of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The conquest of Semigallian counties started in 1219 when crusaders from Rīga occupied Mežotnemarker, the major port on the Lielupe waterway, and founded the Bishopric of Semigallia. After several unsuccessful campaigns against the pagan Semigallian duke Viestards and his kinsfolk Samogitians the Roman Curia decided to abolish the Bishopric of Semigallia in 1251 and divide its territories between the Bishopric of Rīga and the Order of Livonia. In 1265 the stone castle on river of Lielupe was built in Jelgavamarker, which became the main military basis for the crusades against Semigallians. In 1271 the capital hillfort in Tērvetemarker was conquered, but Semigallians under the Duke Nameisis rebelled in 1279, when Lithuanians defeated the Livonian Order forces in the Battle of Aizkraukle. Semigallian forces under the Duke Nameisis unsuccessfully attacked Rīga in 1280, in response to that around 14,000 crusaders besieged Turaida castle in 1281. To conquer the remaining Semigallian hillforts the Order's master Villekin of Endorpe built a castle called Heiligenberg right next to the Tērvete castle in 1287. In 1287 the Semigallians made another attempt to conquer Rīga, but failed to take it again. On their return home Livonian knights attacked them, but were defeated in the Battle of Garoza where the Orders' master Villekin and at least 35 knights lost their lives. The new master of the Order Cuno of Haciginstein organised the last campaign against the Semigallians in 1289 and 1290, when the hillforts of Dobelemarker, Rakte and Sidarbe were conquered and most of the Semigallian warriors joined the Samogitian and Lithuanian forces.

Prussia and Lithuania

Campaigns of Konrad of Masovia

Konrad I, the Polish Duke of Masovia, unsuccessfully attempted to conquer pagan Prussia in crusades in 1219 and 1222. Taking the advice of the first Bishop of Prussia, Christian of Oliva, Konrad founded the crusading Order of Dobrzyń (or Dobrin) in 1220. However, this order was largely ineffective, and Konrad's campaigns against the Old Prussians were answered by incursions into his territory of Culmerland (Chełmno Landmarker). Subjected to constant Prussian counter-raids, Konrad wanted to stabilize the north of the Duchy of Masovia in this fight over border area of Chełmno Land. Masovia had only been conquered in the 10th century and native Prussians, Yotvingians, and Lithuanians were still living in the territory, where no settled borders existed. His military weakness led Konrad to invite the Teutonic Knights to Prussia.

Teutonic Order

The Northern Crusades provided a rationale for the growth and expansion of the Teutonic Order of German crusading knights which had been founded in Palestine at the end of the 12th century. Due to Muslim successes in the Holy Land, the Order sought new missions in Europe. Duke Konrad I of Masovia in west-central Polandmarker appealed to the Knights to defend his borders and subdue the pagan Baltic Prussians in 1226. After the subjugation of the Prussians, the Teutonic Knights fought against Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

When the Livonian knights were crushed by Samogitians and Semigallians in the Battle of Saule in 1236, coinciding with a series of revolts in Estonia, the Livonian Order was inherited by the Teutonic Order, allowing the Teutonic Knights to exercise political control over large territories in the Baltic region. The Teutonic Knights failed to subdue pagan Lithuania, which officially converted to Christianity in 1386 on the marriage of Grand Duke Jogaila to the 11-year-old Queen Jadwiga of Poland.

The Teutonic Order's attempts to conquer Orthodox Russiamarker (particularly the Republics of Pskov and Novgorod), an enterprise endorsed by Pope Gregory IX, can also be considered as a part of the Northern Crusades. One of the major blows for the idea of the conquest of Russia was the Battle of the Ice in 1242. With or without the Pope's blessing, Sweden also undertook several crusades against Orthodox Novgorod.

See also


  1. An Historical Overview of the Crusade to Livonia by William Urban
  2. The Northern Crusades: Second Edition by Eric Christiansen; p.93; ISBN 0140266534
  3. TheChronicle of Henry of Livonia ISBN 0231128894
  5. Edward Henry Lewinski Corwin

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