What About the Northern Crusades?

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A Brief History

On February 17, 1370, the Teutonic Knights fought a great battle against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a battle known as the Battle of Rudau.  This particular battle was one in the series of wars called “The Northern Crusades,” a war to impose the Christian religion on Pagan people in Northern Europe, especially in the Baltic region.  The “other” Crusades, those in the Middle East as a Christian effort to take and retain control of Jerusalem and “The Holy Lands” against Islamic forces is much better known, and had been discussed on our site at length.  Today we take a brief look at those “other” Crusades.  (The Northern Crusades are sometimes referred to as “The Baltic Crusades.”)

Digging Deeper

Fought in what is now part of Russia, the Battle of Rudau was a step in the ongoing effort to forcibly convert pagans to the Christian religion.  The Teutonic Knights had not fought the Lithuanians in their Crusade for a considerable period before restarting their holy quest, the previous hostilities taking place about 8 decades prior to the Battle of Rudau.  In 1369, an incident in which the Teutonic Knights burned a Lithuanian fort along with 109 Lithuanians inside raised the ire of the Lithuanian nobility and led to a thirst for revenge.  (The Teutonic Knights was a holy Catholic order that had been founded in the Holy Land during the Crusades in 1192.) The Lithuanians had taken the initiative, leading an army to Prussia to attack the Teutonic Knights.   The Teutonic Knights were accompanied by an infantry of men allied to but not part of the order.  The result of the battle was a rousing victory by the Teutonic Knights, who suffered only 26 Knights killed along with perhaps 300 of their men.  The Lithuanians suffered far worse, with at least 1000 dead and perhaps as many as 3500 killed (over 5000 claimed by the Teutonic Knights) as well as being chased from the battlefield.  The Teutonic Knights gave the credit for their victory to “The Virgin Mary.”

The so called Northern Crusades began around 1195 AD, with Pope Alexander III calling for the conversion of pagan peoples to the Christian religion in 1171 (or 1172) in Papal Bull Non parum animus noster.  Later, Pope Celestine III also called for the Northern countries to engage in a “Crusade” in 1195, starting the series of wars we are referring to.  Christian Europeans were urged to target those pagan regions of the Baltic, including Slavic and Finnic people that had been clinging to their pagan religions.  Christian Poland, Scandinavia, The Holy Roman Empire (Germany and Prussia mostly) had already for many decades been waging wars of conquest against their pagan neighbors, so a concerted effort under the guise of religion was kind of predictable.

These Northern Crusades were fought in several steps by various participants, more or less ending with the Prussian Crusades of 1217 to 1274, and the last battle of those wars, The Battle of Rudau in 1370.  The fighting had not always been victory for the Crusaders, and many of the battles were defensive in nature or retaliatory to retake lost territory.

History is littered with the lost lives and depraved acts attributable to wars fought in the name of “religion” and for “God.”  One has to wonder what the God of each of these warring people would think of their inhumane actions!

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you ever been taught about the Northern Crusades previously?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. Penguin Books, 1998.

Urban, William. Teutonic Knights.  Frontline Books, 2011.

The featured image in this article, a 14th-century bas-relief from Malbork Castle of Lithuanians fighting Teutons, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.