Missionaries and Crusaders


The crusading order “The Sword Brothers” is incorporated into the order, “The Teutonic Knights” by decree of Pope Gregory. Both orders had been involved in the crusade against the pagan Prussians. It was due to defeats and weakening of the Sword Brothers that they were merged with the Teutonic Knights.


The twelfth century saw many efforts to expand the boundaries of the Roman Catholic world other than by means of crusades in the Holy Land, Spain and Portugal, and the West’s periodic quarrels with the Byzantines. Usually this was by missionary efforts into pagan lands, and, when the missionaries failed, by the application of economic pressure and force of arms. Most often, in cases where warfare was involved, theology took fourth place to dynastic ambitions, individual greed, and the rooting out of dens of pagan pirates and raiders. As a result, popular support for holy war in the Holy Roman Empire and Scandinavia varied according to the goals that potential volunteers and donors perceived. Vassals had to serve when summoned by the lords, of course, and relatives usually helped in outfitting and covering the travel expenses of those who wished to take the cross, especially if the total cost was reasonable; mercenaries were always eager for work, if the assignment did not appear too dangerous. Moreover, people who would have preferred to fulfil crusading vows in the Holy Land would calculate the risks to their health and lives, the time and money involved, and whether or not there was a serious military effort under way at the time; this usually worked in favour of crusading in the Baltic region. Lastly, some German nobles went on crusade to escape periodic civil wars; thus, civil unrest in the Holy Roman Empire sometimes hurt recruiting efforts for crusades, and sometimes it helped.

In short, motives for taking the cross were diverse, and more often than not secular motives were mixed in with idealism and religious enthusiasm. The medieval public, and those nobles and clerics whose interests were not being served, were as good at detecting hypocrisy as their modern equivalents; even then one tended to believe what one wanted to believe. Missionary efforts, in contrast, were generally endorsed enthusiastically. Although the cleric who sponsored the effort to preach the gospel might well be suspected of seeking fame and an enlargement of his diocese, the benefits would be widely shared and the risks would be few. Those who donated money would be honoured and perhaps saved in the afterlife, while those who went among the pagans would anticipate achieving either fame and honour or earning martyrdom.

Although the missions in the Baltic are usually remembered as German efforts, there were Swedish and Danish missionaries as well. In fact, the Scandinavian churchmen were well in advance of German monks until the merchant community in Visby, on the island of Gotland, opened the Livonian market at the mouth of the Daugava River in the late twelfth century. When the German merchants went to the Daugava, they were accompanied by their own priests. In 1180, one of them – Meinhard, an Augustinian friar – remained with the local tribe, the Livs (whence Livonia), as a missionary.

We have Meinhard’s story, and the history of the next fifty years of the mission, from one of the finest chroniclers of the Middle Ages, Henry of Livonia, who wrote a stirring account of the heroic efforts of missionaries and crusaders to overcome pagan scepticism and resistance. The careful reader can also note the chronicler’s comments about the Christians’ many personal and group failings.

Meinhard had sufficient success for the pope to name him bishop of Üxküll, the island where he had his small church; moreover, his success was sufficient to raise the ire of the pagan priests, who curtailed Meinhard’s activities significantly, fearing that the missionaries would soon be followed by foreign troops. The priests’ fears were not entirely groundless. The Livs and their neighbours upstream, the Letts, had already been visited by Rus’ian officials, collecting tribute for their distant lord, and their folklore undoubtedly contained stories of Viking raiders and travellers. Primitive societies often have widely divergent ways of dealing with strangers – sometimes both great hospitality toward guests and a suspicion that foreign visitors were generally up to no good.

Meinhard had built two fortifications to protect his small flock against Lithuanian raids, and had hired mercenary troops as garrisons. The earlier failure of the Germans to send volunteers to protect the small mission can be partly attributed to the conflict between Welf and Hohenstaufen parties for possession of the imperial title, the conflict worsening after the 1198 death of Heinrich VI. It was in the midst of this uproar that the mission to Livonia was changed into a crusading venture; it was partly to escape that conflict that numerous knights and clerics later took the cross to fight the pagans in Livonia, because by doing so their immunity as crusaders would protect their persons and property from seizure by whichever party was dominant at that moment.

So, with little help from his homeland, Meinhard had built – on the natives’ promise to pay the tithe and taxes – two small stone castles. When it came time to pay the workmen and the mercenary soldiers, however, many natives refused to honour their commitment. Moreover, they then mocked their impoverished bishop for his gullibility. Meinhard seems to have accepted this with Christian fortitude, but since he died soon afterward we cannot be sure what he would have done next. Certainly his successors were less forgiving and patient.

In 1197, before the archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen left on crusade to the Holy Land he invested Berthold, the Cistercian abbot of Loccum, as bishop of Üxküll. The younger son of a ministeriale family which had colonised the swamps along the Elbe River, Berthold was familiar with many of the noble families of Saxony and the complexities of local politics.

Berthold first tried to make friends with the local tribal chieftains, entertaining them and distributing gifts, but his frightening experience at the consecration of a cemetery changed his approach. Pagans set fire to his fortified church, sought to kill him as he fled to his ship, and then pursued him downriver. Berthold went to Gotland, then to Saxony, where he wrote a detailed letter to the pope asking for permission to lead an army against the heathens. When the pope granted his request for ‘remission of sins to all those who should take the cross and arm themselves against the perfidious Livonians’, Berthold criss-crossed the North German countryside, preaching the crusade.

He returned to Livonia in July of 1198 with an army of Saxons and Gotland merchants. The Livs gathered their forces opposite the Christians, and, though they were unwilling to submit to mass baptism, they offered to allow Berthold to stay in the land and to compel his parishioners to remain faithful; but they would allow him only to persuade others to believe in Christ, not to force them to accept the new faith. This was not sufficient for Berthold. When the natives refused his demand for hostages and killed several German foragers, he ordered an attack. His army was not large, but it was well equipped. He not only had heavy cavalry – armoured knights on war-horses which easily overthrew the small Baltic ponies that failed to move out of their relentless path – but he also had infantry armed with crossbows, pikes, billhooks, and halberds, who were protected by iron armour and leather garments. By comparison the Liv militiamen were practically unarmed. Moreover, they were not particularly numerous, and their military tradition was one of perceiving a predictable defeat and evading its consequences. As the Western proverb puts it, discretion was the better part of valour.

Ironically, almost the only Christian casualty was Berthold himself. Although his Saxon knights quickly routed the pagans, Berthold’s horse bolted, carrying him into the enemy’s ranks among the sand dunes, where he was cut down before rescuers could reach him. After taking a terrible revenge for his death, the crusaders left small garrisons in the castles and sailed home. However, the size of these garrisons was insufficient to impress the pagans, who symbolically washed off their baptisms and sent them down the Daugava after the departing crusaders. They then besieged the castles, so that the monks were unable to go into the fields and tend their crops. When the Livonians warned that any priest who remained in the land past Easter would be killed, the frightened clergy fled back to Saxony.

The third bishop, Albert von Buxhoevden, brought a large army from Saxony, forced the Livs to become Christians, and founded a city on the Daugava at Riga. Within a few years the crusade he organised would overwhelm the Letts, push into Estonian territory to the north and east, and occupy the lightly settled areas south of the Daugava and along the coastline to the south.

Although adequate numbers of crusaders came almost every summer to protect the Christian outpost and even undertake offensive operations, it was clear that they were insufficient to conquer the pagans of the interior; and such crusaders contributed little to the defence of the country through the long winters. Bishop Albert’s first thoughts were to make the foremost native elders into a knightly class. This was only partly successful, because so few of them had sufficient income to equip themselves properly. Caupo and a few elders were important in Livonia – Caupo even travelled to Rome to meet the pope – and the ‘Kurish Kings’ were prominent locally for many years. Albert’s second plan was to grant tax fiefs to his relatives and friends; he gave this small number of German knights a share of the episcopal income rather than expecting them to live from the produce of their fields. Some of the Germans married native noblewomen; and in time some of the native knights were absorbed into their number. But the number of German knights was small, and the bishop could not give out more tax fiefs without jeopardising his own slender income and that of his canons. His third plan was to create a new military order, the Swordbrothers. The Swordbrothers provided the garrisons that protected the conquests through the long winters and the military expertise that transformed visiting summertime contingents into more effective warriors.

Consequently thirteenth-century crusading armies operating in Livonia were composed of diverse forces: the Swordbrothers, the vassals of the various bishops, the militia of Riga and other towns, native militias, and visiting crusaders. Native troops were sometimes organised in uniformed infantry bodies, fighting under their own banner; such groups would take turns serving in the border castles, watching for enemy incursions; in battle they usually served on the wings (with the tribes sometimes being kept far apart, lest they mistake one another for the enemy or decide to fight out ancient rivalries right in the middle of a battle). When the prospect for victory seemed good, they fought well, but whenever the tide of battle turned against them, they fled hurriedly, leaving the heavily-armoured Germans in the lurch. Native light cavalry served as scouts and raiders; relatively unsupervised, they had more opportunities for loot, rape and murder than did the slower-moving knights and infantry. Many of the summer volunteers from Germany were middle class merchants who had the money to equip themselves as mounted warriors. All in all, the Livonian crusade differed significantly from crusades in the Holy Land or even Prussia.

After Bishop Albert moved his church to Riga, that city became an important mercantile centre, with Rus’ian traders coming down the Daugava to sell their wax and furs, and Germans sailing upriver as far as Polotsk with their cloth and iron. This brought an additional complication to his policies. The Orthodox Christian church held sway in the lightly settled forests of northern Rus’. These princes’ titles were grander than their present wealth, but their lands were broad, the fields and forests rich, the mercantile cities along the great rivers prosperous, and they were proud that their isolation kept them from the temptations and corruptions of the Roman Catholic world. Individually the Rus’ian dukes of Pskov, Novgorod, and Polotsk attempted to drive Bishop Albert out of Livonia, claiming to be coming to the aid of their subjects. Only the Swordbrothers saved the bishop in these crises, as well as saving his hide from the king of Denmark, who wanted to make himself master of the entire Baltic coastline. However, the Swordbrothers refused to be vassals. They claimed their allegiance was to the pope and to the emperor.

In time Bishop Albert gave one-third of the conquered lands to the Swordbrothers, but he did so grudgingly and made repeated efforts to assert his authority over them. When these quarrels grew so heated as to endanger the crusade, the pope sent a papal legate, William of Modena, to resolve the differences. In the end the bishop had to recognise the Swordbrothers’ autonomy, then give much of his remaining lands to four subordinate prelates, two abbots, and his canons; then, once he had endowed his relatives with estates, there was little left to support a sizeable episcopal army. Nor could Bishop Albert rely solely upon the native militias, though they were very willing to join in the fight against traditional rivals. He needed advocates – experienced warriors who knew the native languages and customs – to train the militia in Western tactics and lead them in battle; but only the Swordbrothers had knights willing to live among the natives, and only the Swordbrothers would perform this task at a reasonable price (poverty, chastity and obedience had little lure for ambitious secular knights). Thus the Swordbrothers, whose military contingents were indispensable when crusading armies were not present, and who could provide knights to organise the native forces, became the leaders of the crusade in Livonia.

If the Swordbrother organisation had great strengths, it also had weaknesses. Foremost of these was its need for more convents in Germany. This lack of local contacts made sustained recruiting drives difficult and hindered efforts to solicit contributions among the faithful; also, incomes from estates would have eased the order’s chronic financial crisis. Secondly, the Swordbrothers’ revenues from Livonian taxes and their own estates were insufficient to hire enough mercenaries to supplement properly the numbers of knights and men-at-arms. This perennial financial crisis drove them to expand their holdings in the hope of increasing the number of ‘converts’ who would pay tribute and provide the warriors needed to make their armies more equal to those of their enemies. This resulted in conflicts with the king of Denmark over Estonia; with the Lithuanians, the most important pagans to the south; and with the Rus’ians, especially those in Novgorod.

The End of the Swordbrothers

The military disaster experienced by the Swordbrothers in 1236 was far from unexpected. For several years the order had realised that its manpower was insufficient to accomplish the tasks that lay before it. It dared not further overburden the natives, who had suffered significant losses in lives, cattle and property during the conquest. Consequently, its officers believed that the best way to increase the revenue needed to support its knights, mercenaries and priests was by obtaining property in Germany. Acquiring manors and hospitals in the Holy Roman Empire, of course, could not be done instantly, and certainly not without a powerful patron. In 1231 Master Volquin had sought to resolve the economic and political crisis by uniting his order with the Teutonic Knights. He had hoped that the superior resources of the ‘German Order’ would provide the men and money needed to defend Livonia, that its discipline would reinvigorate the Swordbrother convents, and that its good offices with Pope Gregory would resolve the conflicts with the bishop of Riga. Even more importantly, there was a terrible row with the papal officer appointed by William of Modena to serve in his absence, who seems to have seen this assignment as a step toward a great career in the Church.

The grand chapter of the Teutonic Order that met in Marburg chose not to act on the Swordbrother proposal, but the idea was far from impractical. In the interchanges of experience and ideas that took place at their frequent meetings at the papal and imperial courts, the Teutonic Knights probably learned more than they taught. The Swordbrothers had the greater experience in the Baltic, having been there for two and a half decades before the Teutonic Knights sent their first permanent unit to the region.

Hermann von Salza sent two castellans from Germany to inspect the situation in Livonia. They spent the winter of 1235 – 6 there and reported their findings to the annual assembly that must have taken place shortly after Friedrich II and the grand master had attended the canonisation of St Elisabeth in Marburg. The report was so negative that there could have been little discussion. In addition to the political problems previously mentioned, they found that convent life among the Swordbrothers was far below the standards of the Teutonic Order, and that the Swordbrothers demanded such autonomy within any future united order that reforming their convents would be impossible.

The Swordbrothers came to their downfall soon afterwards. Their greed and ruthlessness made them vulnerable to accusations before the pope, and they were cut off from the money and the crusaders needed to survive. Desperate for some way out of his situation, Master Volquin led his armies into the pagan regions to the south. A reconciliation with the papacy arranged by William of Modena came too late.

The Swordbrother Order might have survived its financial crisis if Volquin had avoided unnecessary risks. Unfortunately for him, a party of crusaders from Holstein arrived late in the season in 1236 and, despite the lack of adequate numbers to guarantee success, they demanded to be led into battle. Master Volquin, not wanting to disappoint his guests, reluctantly undertook a raid into Samogitia, that part of Lithuania that lay between Livonia and Prussia. Perhaps earlier expeditions into Lithuania had been no less risky, but this time fate collected its due. Volquin led the crusaders across the Saule River (Šiauliai), where they attacked Samogitian settlements. Resistance was insignificant, because the native warriors chose to abandon their homes in favour of ambushing the raiders at the Saule River crossing on their way north. When the retreating crusader force reached the ford, they found it blocked by a small number of resolute pagan warriors. Volquin ordered the crusaders to dismount and wade across the stream. He warned that unless they hurried, it would soon be even more difficult to fight their way across, because the pagans would be reinforced. The Holstein knights, however, refused to fight on foot. Volquin could not impose his will on the visitors, and the crusaders made camp for the night. The next day, when the crusaders splashed across the stream, they discovered that the leading highlands chieftain, Mindaugas, had either led or sent a large body of men to fight alongside the Samogitians. In the ensuing combat Volquin and half his Swordbrothers perished, together with most of the crusaders. The native militias scattered early in the battle; unencumbered by heavy armour, most native warriors found ways to cross the river and flee north while the Lithuanians were preoccupied.

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