THE SURVIVAL AND EXTINCTION OF THE TEUTONIC ORDER IN PRUSSIA, 1418–1525

“Brother-Knight and servant of the Teutonic Order, approx. 1520”, Marek Szyszko

Warmia (Ermeland) surrounded by the Duchy of Prussia founded in 1525

The Order had little reason to be dissatisfied with what had happened either, since the Council had showed itself in general to be in favour of crusades, and, in part, friendly towards the Teutonic Knights. It had avoided being tarred with the same brush as Falkenberg, whose doctrines were not formally condemned until 1424, and appeared to have won the war of words. Or so the continuator of Posilge’s Prussian Chronicle wrote in 1418: ‘the king’s envoys had cast reproaches at the Order with many great lies against the pope and the whole council before the Romish king and the electors, and in every plea they made they were overcome by the truth since they persisted in their lies’. The Knights would obviously be justified in continuing to uphold the rights guaranteed them by the treaty of Torun.

But the fact was that they were no longer strong enough to do so. From 1418 to 1422, Kuchmeister confronted Wladyslaw’s demands for his western territories with a perfectly respectable series of charters, and answers that satisfied the imperial tribunal at Breslau (Wroclaw); but, when Wladyslaw lost patience with the negotiations and invaded Prussia once more, the Order was compelled to come to terms after a campaign that lasted less than two months. By the treaty of Lake Melno (Meldensee) Kuchmeister’s successor, Paul von Russdorf, surrendered various scraps of frontier territory to Poland, and resigned the Order’s residual claim to Samogitia for ever. Von Russdorf had appealed to the Empire for help, but the Polish advance had been so rapid that the war was over before any crusaders arrived. A month after the treaty, on 27 October 1422, Count-Palatine Lewis of the Rhine, and Archbishop Dietrich von Moers of Cologne led their men into Prussia. They spent the winter there, and then went home. They were the last crusaders to Prussia, even from Germany; in future the Order had to rely on its own members, or on mercenaries (whom it could ill afford), or on Prussian levies (who no longer wanted to serve).

Even when Poland and Lithuania drifted apart, as in the period 1422 to 1447, the Order was unable to gain any lasting advantage from the division. Grand-Master von Russdorf – a pious intriguer, with a smile and a winning word for every occasion, who was known in Poland as the Holy Ghost – grew friendly with the ancient Witold, and with his successor Svitrigal (Svitrigaila, Swidrigel, etc.), but his intervention in the Lithuanian succession dispute of 1431–5 was not a success. The king of Poland struck back by sending an army of Hussites to the mouth of the Vistula; the Hussites devastated western Prussia for four months, and by December 1435 von Russdorf was compelled to make peace. His country was demoralized and discontented, his Catholic army had been trounced by a gang of heretics; his conqueror had incurred excommunication for using them, and the Order’s privileges had been confirmed by the Council of Bâle: but in vain.

The plight of Prussia was bemoaned to Europe by a friend of the Order, the accomplished Latinist Conrad Bitschin. In his Epistola ecclesie deplanctoria187 he heaped abuse on the enemy – ‘O execrable Poland, O dullard nation, O nation crazed! How could you be so forgetful of your own salvation that you chose so nefarious an ally?’ – and drew attention to the wanton spoliation of his country: ‘Lament, O delicate Prussia, thou who until of late wast opulent in fruit and fish and all manner of delightful food…’ He then appealed for military assistance: ‘Take heed, you Catholic knights and soldiers who have hitherto come from the frontiers of distant lands to receive generous wages; take heed, I implore you, of your calling, for in this affair you are summoned not merely to receive wages, but to do battle, and the wages of battle are paid in Grace.’ Not enough, it seemed; nobody came. The estates grudged their military service and their taxes, and the knights of Catholic Europe stayed at home. Only the Livonians fought on, and they were defeated.

After the peace of Lake Melno, therefore, it was only a matter of time before the Order was compelled to surrender all that the Poles wanted. It took over forty years, and the struggle involved repeated arbitration, polemic, litigation, and warfare, culminating in a thirteen years’ civil war that tore Prussia in half; but in the end the superior resources of the Polish-Lithuanian monarchy were bound to prevail. By the second treaty of Torun (19 October 1466) Grand-Master Lewis von Erlichshausen was compelled to disgorge all he held on either side of the Lower Vistula – the lands taken from Poland since 1309, and the Prussian Oberland conquered before 1250, including Marienburg castle itself. The east Prussian rump, which he continued to rule from Königsberg, remained an independent principality, but the grand-masters were expected to take personal oaths of loyalty to the kings of Poland to guarantee their good conduct.

These wars were in no sense a continuation of the Northern crusade, despite the efforts of the Order and its publicists to attract crusading assistance. The only ‘heathen’ left to fight were the Russians, and the struggle with Poland prevented the Prussians from undertaking such action. If they had combined, such a crusade might well have taken place; but, as long as they remained bitterly hostile, the Holy War was suspended.

The idea survived the reality, however, because it was the official raison d’être of the Prussian government, which remained in the hands of professed monks until 1525. As long as the rest of Europe paid lip-service to this idea, there was some hope that it might be manipulated to the advantage of the lords of Prussia. Until 1411, belief in the crusade had been a powerful cohesive force, joining the Order, its subjects and ‘guests’ in pursuit of a common political goal, however mistaken or indefensible; afterwards, it became a private obsession of the Order, nerving its members to hold untenable positions as long as possible – not only against the Poles, but also against their own burghers and junkers and bishops. This dedication to a mission that could never again be carried out, at least in Prussia, helped to keep the old system of government going, but did not prevent the brothers becoming odious to their subjects, quarrelsome among themselves, and disobedient both to their Rule and to their grand-master. They were now recruited exclusively from the impecunious lesser nobility of western Germany; no burghers or mere knights need apply, and in Germany their numbers fell by a third between 1400 and 1450. Those who went out to Prussia were seen as ‘Outlanders’ by the rest of Prussian society, and treated the ‘Inlanders’ with resolute lordliness, enforcing their powers as gebittiger (officials) with slights and mockery. When their subjects complained to a knight in office, he would strike his head and say, ‘Look you here, this is the Hocbmeister sitting here! I will be all the Hocbmeister you need, so get down, you sons of bitches!’ Their vassals looked back to the good old days of Dusmer and von Kniprode, when settlers were treated with respect. As the junkers of the Kulmerland and Torun pointed out to the Order in 1438, ‘Although it was your predecessors who brought a part of the country to the Christian faith, how did that come about, other than by the strength and might of our forefathers?’ ‘We won you with the sword’ was the answer to all such questions, until in 1454 the burghers and vassals took the sword into their own hands and turned to the king of Poland for assistance.

This attitude was not the result of the impatience of unworldly with worldly men. The system of administration and business which had developed in the fourteenth century absorbed more of the Order’s energy in the fifteenth, when they were brought into fierce competition with other Prussian interests; and there was much less written evidence of spiritual or intellectual exercise, at least among the Prussian brothers. There was now no need for the sumptuous entertainment which had made Marienburg attractive to crusaders in the past, but the remorseless conviviality of these snobbish bachelors served to pass the time and remind the colonials who was boss. They did not even bother to recite the Hours, and they scarcely even knew the Paternoster, complained the Carthusians in their ‘Admonition’ of 1428: ‘while men sing in church, the lords sit in the cellar and take their ease and make merry… Thus there is no more delight in the Offices, and there is no spirituality in the convents, neither in their lives nor in their dress.’ In peace they domineered, made money, feasted and philandered; in war they fought as vigorously as ever, but the outcome now depended on their ability to pay their mercenaries, rather than on knightly prowess. Nor could they bring themselves to agree with each other: from 1410 there were continual quarrels between the various ‘tongues’ into which they were divided. Grand-Master Henry von Plauen tried to advance Low Germans, and met with hatred and conspiracy among the High Germans, who had come to regard Prussia as their preserve; von Russdorf patronized Rhinelanders, but met with bitter opposition from the Swabians, Bavarians, and Franconians, who claimed a monopoly of offices. Yet, while the brothers grew more incorrigible and less manageable, political power slipped from their hands, as a corporation, into those of the grand-master: at first, by the connivance of the Prussian estates, who paid their homage to Conrad von Erlichshausen personally on his election in 1441; and later, when dread of Poland led the brothers to appoint ‘outside candidates’ from reigning German dynasties: Frederick of Saxony in 1498, Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach in 1511 – princes who made use of the Order to promote their family interests.

After 1466, all the grand-masters tried to reform the Order, but none succeeded in convoking the general-chapter which was seen as a necessary preliminary. The problem of the Prussian knight-brothers was never considered in isolation; it was approached as an aspect of the decay of the whole Order, and, since the masters of Livonia and Germany could not be brought to co-operate in a general reform, it was never successfully tackled.

A far-sighted reformer might have considered two radical solutions to this dilemma. One was to remain true to the crusading tradition, face the fact that the Northern crusade was over, and pull out of Prussia; the Order would then have been able to fight against the real menace confronting Catholic Europe, the Ottoman Turks, and could have reformed itself into a true fraternity of military celibates, unhampered by the cares of government and politics. The other was for the Prussian brothers to cut their ties with the Order, renounce their vows, marry, and settle down as members of a secular Prussian ruling class.

In the fifteenth century the first of these courses had its advocates. The Emperor Sigismund – still king of Hungary – was anxious to halt the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, and at the conference of Lutsk (1429) proposed that knight-brothers be placed in charge of military operations on this front; a section from Prussia, under Commander Claus von Redewitz, reoccupied the lands in Transylvania which the Order had held from 1211 to 1225, and stayed there until half were wiped out by a Turkish invasion in 1432. By 1437 Sigismund was suggesting that the whole Order be resettled in this area by the joint authority of himself, the pope and the Council of Bâle. After the grand-master had submitted to Poland in 1466, it was the Poles who favoured the idea. In 1497 Grand-Master von Tiefen marched from Königsberg to Halicz on the Dniester to assist King John Albert against his rebellious vassal, the voivot of Wallachia; but he fell sick with dysentery as soon as he got there, and died at Lwow. His army of 4000 men went home immediately, and the ensuing election of Frederick of Saxony was a victory for those brothers who disliked co-operation with Poland and wished to strengthen their ties with Germany. Saving Europe from the Turks was one thing; leaving Prussia was another. It was not until Prussia had left the Order that the knight-brothers could think of seriously devoting themselves to the Eastern Front, and it was not until 1595, with the first Habsburg grand-master, the Archduke Maximilian, that they actually did so.

By contrast, holding on to Prussia remained a popular and practical policy within the Order, even after 1466 – half was better than none. In the relatively peaceful days that followed the submission to Poland, the province flourished; in the time of Grand-Master von Tiefen, wrote Paul Pole in his sixteenth-century Prussian Chronicle, ‘Prussia appeared no less than a pleasure-garden of the Lord’, and the equable von Tiefen prided himself on the fine clothes and rich diet of his burghers and peasants, whom he refused to vex with taxes and wars. It was a country worth keeping, even if the task made the knight-brothers bad monks. Until the Reformation, when the whole idea of monasticism came under attack, nobody suggested that they should cease to be monks altogether; for this apparently simple solution raised insuperable difficulties. In the first place, only the pope could dissolve a religious Order, and successive popes and grand-masters persisted in believing that the Teutonic Knights could reform. Secondly, the social function of Prussia and Livonia as ‘asylums’ for the indigent nobility of Germany could only be preserved if the ruling elites of these provinces needed constant replenishment. The rule of celibacy guaranteed this. And, finally, secularization was by no means a certain method of keeping Prussia. How would renegades be able to renounce their Rule without renouncing their lands and privileges?

In the end, secularization was imposed on the Prussian brothers by the grand-master. They had elected Albert, son of the margrave of Brandenburg, as a promising young soldier whose powerful connections would deter the King of Poland from increasing his influence over Prussia. Albert took the monastic vow, and with the support of the Emperor Maximilian refused to do homage to Poland. When Maximilian deserted him, he prepared for war. Master von Plettenberg of Livonia refused to co-operate, but Albert placed his hopes in the hiring of German mercenaries and alliances with Denmark or Muscovy – or the Tartars. When the Poles declared war, he went through with the traditional invocation of the Virgin, making a barefoot pilgrimage to her shrine near Rastenburg and holding solemn processions at Königsberg. But the fighting went badly for Prussia; cannon were floated down the Vistula from Cracow, and one by one the Order’s castles were besieged and captured. The Emperor Charles V arranged a truce in 1521, and, although the question of homage was referred to arbitration, there was little chance that Albert would be able to avoid making his submission.

To make matters worse, the internal peace of Prussia was threatened by the spread of Lutheran opinions among the laity and some of the secular clergy. This meant riot and confusion in most German principalities, but in ecclesiastical lordships it threatened the very existence of the state. Albert lacked the resources to wage civil war for the maintenance of the old order, especially as several of his commanders and his own bishop, Polenz of Samland, favoured the heresy; he met Luther at Wittenberg in 1522, and found a way out. In Luther’s view, it was the duty of all Teutonic Knights to renounce their vows and marry, and it was Albert’s duty to establish a secular duchy for himself in Prussia. These measures would reconcile Albert to his anti-monastic Lutheran subjects, and preserve his standing as a territorial ruler. After he had secured peace with Poland, by persuading King Sigismund to enfeoff him as hereditary duke of Prussia, and his own Estates and bishops had ratified the agreement, those knight-brothers who objected to the change had no means of stopping it. Albert had allowed all the great offices to fall vacant and had run down the total strength of knight-brothers in Prussia to fifty-five. He summoned only a minority of these to Königsberg in May 1525 to approve his decision. Most of them were intimidated by the hostility of the burghers and egged on by Albert’s entourage. Only seven stood by their vows. After a few days’ hesitation even these gave their consent, and cut the crosses from their habits for fear of being lynched.

It was not the spiritual decadence of the Order, or the decline of the crusading ideal, that put an end to the rule of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. The subsequent reform of the German bailiwicks under Grand-Master Kronberg, and the part played by the Knights in the Habsburg offensives against the Protestants and the Turks indicate that armed monks still had a place in European politics long after 1525, and the survival of the Order in Livonia until 1562 proves that the Baltic convents still had life in them. It was the failure of the Prussian knight-brothers to come to a satisfactory political settlement with the Polish kingdom that put an end to the old Prussian system. By putting their trust in German princes, the Knights lost the power to preserve a monastic affiliation that was no longer essential to the military defence of the country and had become a contentious issue in the religious ferment of the 1520s. ‘It happened with us lords of Prussia, as it happened with the frogs who took a stork as their king’ – thus Brother Philip von Kreutz wrote a Relation of the whole ‘dirty deal’, as he called it. ‘Now all the estates had done their homage, and I saw that there was no means by which the dirty deal could be changed, I did homage too, in order to save my property thereby, for I had a large sum of money in my employment [he was commander of Insterburg], more than any other Teutonic lord.’ It is interesting that, in the debate that accompanied the dissolution of the Prussian houses, the question of the morality of the crusade played little part: both the Teutonic Knights and their enemies preferred to argue about the morality of monasticism.

The only Prussian brother who declared against the new duke was the commander of Memel, Eric of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel, who was also the scion of a German territorial dynasty. The other Prussian convents accepted the change. The majority of those inside Germany remained deaf to Luther’s ‘Exhortation to the Lords of the Teutonic Order’ (March 1523), but many of their estates were devastated in the Peasants’ War, and subsequently confiscated by Protestant princes. In 1527 Master Kronberg of Germany became grand-master, and the Order embarked on a new career as an ally of the Habsburgs in the Wars of Religion.

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