Battle of Lake Peipus, 5 April 1242

Battle of Lake Peipus, 5 April 1242, in which forces of Novgorod under Alexander Nevskii defeated Northern Crusaders led by Bishop Hermann of Tartu. Following wide-ranging manoeuvres largely confined to areas of frozen marsh between dense forests, both sides crossed the frozen channel linking Lake Peipus with its southern extension, often called Lake Pskov.

Initial dispositions:

(A) Alexander Nevskii’s household cavalry drawn up behind Novgorod militia;

(B) Russian left wing;

(C) Russian right wing, including contingent of Turco-Mongol horse-archers;

(D) Crusader array, with Livonian feudal contingent on right, Teutonic Knights in centre, and Danish feudal forces from northern Estonia on left;

(E) Estonian auxiliaries.

Movements:

(1) Russian army crosses frozen lake, then adopts a defensive position at Raven’s Rock;

(2) Probable route of pursuing Crusader army across frozen lake;

(3) Alternative Crusader route, via Piiris Island;

(4) Crusader frontal attack forces back Novgorod militia;

(5) Attack by Russian right, including horse-archers, hits Danes in flank, causing them to flee. They are followed by the Crusader right flank and Estonian auxiliaries, leaving the Teutonic Knights surrounded.

The Teutonic Knights in Prussia were concerned about the Mongol threat. Even though a legend concerning the Prussian master, Poppo, has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false, popular historians continue to revive the story that he met his death at the battle of Liegnitz under a hail of Tatar arrows. The kernel of truth to this myth is based on the order’s responsibility to defend Christendom against all its armed foes, and perhaps Poppo had been present at the battle and wounded. Direct evidence is lacking. Poppo did die at Liegnitz and was buried there, but that was many years later, when he was visiting his wife’s convent.

In any event, the current moment was not a good one for Andreas to risk Livonian knights who might be needed elsewhere. Andreas was aware also that the knights most eager to attack Novgorod were rebels who were determined to annul the Treaty of Stensby and plunge his order into war with Denmark. Perhaps the temporary nature of his authority, that of acting-master, limited his confidence to offer bold leadership. Whatever his reasons, Andreas does not seem to have been committed to the crusade after the spring of 1241.

More importantly, Andreas von Felben had a more pressing problem to deal with than assisting crusaders in an attack on Novgorod. That was to subdue an uprising on Oesel, which he accomplished that winter by leading an army across the ice and overawing the rebels. The peace treaty survives, providing us with valuable insight into the crusaders’ demands on their subjects. First of all, anyone performing pagan ceremonies was to be fined and whipped. Second, farmers were to convey their taxes by ship either to Riga or the bishop. Third, anyone who was guilty of infanticide was to be fined, and the mother was to be taken to the cemetery nine successive Sundays, stripped, and whipped. Fourth, once a year, at the time the taxes were paid, the advocate would hold court, rendering justice as advised by the elders of the land. Lastly, murderers were to pay a wergild of ten marks for homicides committed on strangers or among themselves, a heavy penalty which could be paid only with the help of one’s clansmen. In short, the treaty dealt with a variety of concerns – religious, financial and social – which presumably were not covered by existing agreements. The treaty also demonstrates that the Oeselian Estonians were by no means powerless serfs. A master does not sign a formal treaty requiring the presence of priests, friars, vassals, his marshal and numerous knights and multorum aliorum fidelium, Theutonicorum et Estonum, unless the seniores de Estonibus Maritimae et alii quam plures were men of power and substance.

Meanwhile, Duke Alexander had been invited to return to Novgorod. The abased citizens, now persuaded that they could not fight the German-Pskov forces alone, apparently conceded all the points over which they had quarrelled. Late in 1241 Alexander overwhelmed the German-Danish garrisons east of Narva. Significantly, he spared the Westerners for ransom but hanged the Estonians as rebels and traitors. He thus demonstrated his limited aim: to retain control of the vital border territories. He had no intention of driving the crusaders into the sea; his attention was directed more to the south – where the Mongols held sway – than to the west. His intent was merely to guarantee that he would not be attacked from the rear while he was engaged with the Tatars. His move against the Western garrison in Pskov on 5 March 1242 was described by a German chronicler in these terms:

He marched toward Pskov with many troops. He arrived there with a mighty force of many Russians to free the Pskovians and these latter heartily rejoiced. When he saw the Germans he did not hesitate long. They drove away the two Brothers, removed them from their advocacy and routed their servants. The Germans fled . . . If Pskov had been defended, Christianity would be benefited until the end of the world. It is a mistake to conquer a fair land and fail to occupy it well . . . The king of Novgorod then returned home.

The corresponding account in the Chronicle of Novgorod is very short: ‘Prince Alexander occupied all the roads right up to [Pskov], seized the Germans and the Chud men, and having bound them in chains, sent them to be imprisoned in Novgorod’.

Alexander led a relatively small force into the diocese of Dorpat, only to turn back after Bishop Hermann’s men routed his scouts at a bridge. Perhaps a small number of Teutonic Knights joined in the pursuit of Alexander’s retreating forces, making the order’s total contribution more respectable. The Orthodox and Catholic armies then met at Lake Peipus – the famous Battle on the Ice. Neither army was large. The Westerners had perhaps 2,000 men, the Russians perhaps 6,000, but these numbers were, in effect, balanced by the superior armament of the crusaders

The battle has become undeservedly famous, having been endowed – for twentieth-century political considerations – with much more significance than it merited in itself, through Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, and the stirring music of Sergei Prokoviev. Indeed, although this movie is a reasonably accurate portrayal of some aspects of the battle, especially the costumes and tactics, and gives us an impressive sense of the drama of medieval combat, other aspects are pure propaganda. Certainly the ancestors of today’s Estonians and Latvians were not dwarfs, as the movie suggests, nor were they serfs. Master Andreas was in Riga, and thus could not have been taken prisoner by Alexander himself and ransomed for soap. The Russian forces were mainly professionals, not pre-Lenin Communist peasants and workers facing the equivalent of German armoured columns; the Germans were not proto-Nazis, blonde giants who burned babies alive. In short, many scenes in Alexander Nevsky tell us much more about the Soviet Union just before Hitler’s invasion than about medieval history. On the other hand, it is just possible that the crusaders did possess a portable organ – Henry of Livonia had mentioned an incident in an earlier combat in which the playing of a musical instrument caused the two armies to stop fighting momentarily to listen in wonder, and records from the end of the century list organs among the religious objects destroyed by Lithuanian pagans. Certainly Lake Peipus is far enough inland that the last days of cold weather might have preserved sufficient ice along the shores to support the weight of men on horseback.

Spring had not yet come on 5 April as the crusader army proceeded across the lake or, more likely, along the shore to meet the Russian forces that were massed in a solid body. Although some of the fighting probably took place on the ice, it is unlikely that the cavalry forces ventured onto it in significant numbers. The heavily armed Western knights formed the spearhead of a column followed by light cavalry and foot soldiers, which charged into the Russian infantry. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle summarised the battle tersely:

The [Russians] had many archers, and the battle began with their bold assault on the king’s men [Danes]. The brothers’ banners were soon flying in the midst of the archers, and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then the Brothers’ army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily sixty men for every one German knight. The Brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down. Some of those from Dorpat escaped from the battle, and it was their salvation that they fled. Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured.

The battle, of course, had repercussions beyond the Livonian-Rus’ian border region: revolts broke out in Kurland and Prussia which threatened to involve the Teutonic Knights on so many fronts that they could not cope with their enemies. Alexander Nevsky, however, had no interest in destroying the crusader states in Livonia. First of all, the former Swordbrothers and Teutonic Knights who were represented at the battle lost only half as many knights as had perished at Saule. When one considers that these would be quickly reinforced by troops that the master held in reserve, the Teutonic Order remained a formidable foe; moreover, the crusaders would be fighting on the defensive in well-constructed wooden forts, and Alexander Nevsky had not equipped his forces for sieges. Moreover, the Mongol threat was so immediate that the prince could not afford to postpone attending to it. Consequently he offered generous terms to the Roman Christians, which the crusaders immediately accepted: Novgorod withdrew from Pskov and other border territories, Alexander freed his prisoners, and the Germans released their hostages. Three years later Alexander defeated a Lithuanian effort to exploit Novgorod’s weakened condition. In the end, however, like the other Russian princes, he acknowledged the authority of the Golden Horde and performed military service for the Mongol khan. For the next twenty years there was no war between Rus’ians and Germans.

It had been a dangerous moment for Novgorod, but perhaps less dangerous than is sometimes thought. If Novgorod had been occupied by the Westerners, the Rus’ian state might indeed have shared the fate of Byzantium after the Fourth Crusade, to be dominated temporarily by foreigners, perhaps so permanently lamed in political and economic terms that it would be unable to ward off the more dangerous enemy advancing from the East. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine the crusaders permanently suppressing Russian culture, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Russian nobility. If the Golden Horde could not do this, could the Westerners, whose capacity vis-à-vis the Mongols’ pales into insignificance? It is easy to exaggerate the importance of the Battle on the Ice. In the short term, it was more important for the crusaders, in that it put an end to the eastward drive of the armed mission; in the long term it gave Russians a memory of a glorious victory over formidable foes, a victory that stood out so brightly because of its rarity.

Victory, if the outcome had been reversed, would have given new life to the tensions in Livonia and Estonia. Those Teutonic Knights who had been former Swordbrothers and wholeheartedly supported the attack might have incurred new obligations that the Teutonic Knights as a whole would have to meet. Although the survivors of the former Swordbrother Order would continue to complain that they had not been properly supported (‘The bishop . . . had brought along too few people, and the brothers’ army was also too small’), they had no choice other than to submit to Master Dietrich. Only one of their knights appears later in Livonian records, and he only after the lapse of many years. At least one of their surviving leaders was sent to the Holy Land. Were other former Swordbrothers among those Teutonic Knights there who left the order in 1245 to join the Templars? We do not know. Even Andreas von Felben left the country temporarily, being stationed in his native Netherlands in 1243. Defeat seems to have provided Master Dietrich with the opportunity for a thorough housecleaning, a task he performed with such efficiency that in 1246 he was elected Prussian master, then eight years later German master.

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One thought on “Battle of Lake Peipus, 5 April 1242

  1. Pingback: This fighting world, Zionism and Israel #4 – Jeshuaisten / Jeshuaists

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