Innocent III and the Origins of the Order of Sword Brothers

The Livonian Brothers of the Sword were a military order established by their second bishop, Bishop Albert of Riga, in 1202. Pope Innocent III sanctioned the establishment in 1204 for the second time. The membership of the order comprised German “warrior monks”. Following their defeat by the Samogitians and Semigallians in the Battle of Schaulenin 1236, the surviving Brothers merged into the Teutonic Order as an autonomous branch and became known as the Livonian Order.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century a new military order, later called the Order of the Sword Brothers, was created in Livonia to support the mission and crusade in that region. In c.1185, Maynard, a canon regular from Segeberg in Mecklenburg, began to preach the Gospel to the heathens in Livonia, present-day Latvia. Maynard’s preaching was by no means an isolated activity, but it must be set in the context of the Drang nach Osten, pursued by Henry the Lion as well as the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen in the second half of the twelfth century in north-central Germany. It also involved the German traders of Mecklenburg’s harbour towns, who were interested in gaining renewed access to the Baltic Sea in order to facilitate trade with Russian merchants. In the second half of the twelfth century, as a result of Henry the Lion’s expansionist policy and the interests of German traders, Livonia was chosen as fertile territory for a mission to be undertaken by some Cistercians and by several canonical foundations in central Germany. Their aim was to preach the Gospel to the heathens verbo vel exemplo.

In 1190, in support of the mission to the heathen, Clement III granted an indulgence concerning their observance over food and drink. In 1193, Celestine III declared that the proposita, or way of life of monks and canons regular who were going to Livonia to preach the Gospel ex diversis ordinibus, should be of equal value. Subsequently, several pagan attacks took place against the preachers in Livonia, while news of the active preaching of a crusade to the Holy Land in 1195 by Archbishop Conrad of Mainz encouraged a similar movement against the heathen of Livonia between 1196 and 1197. Clerics, soldiers, traders, and laymen, drawn widely from the whole of Saxony, Westphalia, and Friesland, all participated in this crusade.

Thus, by the end of the twelfth century, the Livonian mission had been transformed into a crusade. The Saxon nobility and Berthold, the new bishop of Livonia, together with the preachers, associated this movement with pilgrimage (peregrinatio) and the crusade against Muslims in the Holy Land. Milites and laymen, interested in gaining remission of sins through their pilgrimage to Livonia, joined those traders and clerics who had preached to the heathen in the early days of the mission. Furthermore, on 5 October 1199, Pope Innocent III once again sought the support of laymen and milites from Westphalia, Saxony, and the lands beyond the Elbe, who were already settled in Mecklenburg and the Baltic region from the second half of the twelfth century. He granted remission of penance to anyone joining the crusading army or exercitus, gathered together in God’s name (in nomine Domini) for the purpose of defending potenter et viriliter not only converts, but also Christians living in Livonia. As a result of Innocent’s decision, a group of pilgrims (peregrini) began to form a fighting force in order to create a lasting organization to defend preachers in Livonia under the leadership of Albert, their new bishop. At Albert’s request, Innocent III addressed all the faithful residing in Westphalia, Saxony, and the lands beyond the Elbe, where in 1199 the bishop had initiated his preaching mission to Livonia.

Both the Scandinavian Church and the Danish monarchy had become involved in this mission, following King Valdemar I’s attempt from the 1170s onwards to convert Estonia to Christianity. However, no evidence exists to show that any Templar or Hospitaller brother from houses in north-central Germany or in Scandinavia participated in the Livonia crusades in 1196/1197 and 1200. All that can be said is that in the last quarter of the twelfth century, the Templars and the Hospitallers were indeed present in Scandinavia and in Germany. In Scandinavia, Tore Nyberg has demonstrated the influence of the Hospitaller houses in Antvorskov in Denmark (1167), in Lücke, in Verne or Vara, close to Oslo in Norway (1177), and in Eskilstuna in the bishopric of Strängnäs in Sweden (before 1185). The Templars and the Hospitallers were also thriving in northern Germany, and were considerably involved in preaching the Livonian crusade. As Schüpferling pointed out, Templar houses were established in Lippsringe in the bishopric of Paderborn in Westphalia, related to the family of the Count of Lippe, which had been involved in crusading in Livonia from the beginning of the thirteenth century. Templar houses also existed in Saxony, linked to Henry the Lion and to Cistercian foundations in Riddagshausen and Loccum, which were supported by the same Duke of Saxony and which had sent preachers to Livonia from the end of the twelfth century. The Templar house at Brunswick in Ostphalia could also be cited, founded as it was by Henry the Lion following his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and by the Cistercian Abbot, Sigebodus of Riddagshausen. Henry the Lion also established the Templar house in Supplingenburg, and it is likely that there was another house of the Temple in Loccum, close to the eponymous Cistercian abbey, even if some scholars claim that it had never been a Templar possession.

Furthermore, in 1200 a hospital, established in the bishopric of Schwerin in Mecklenburg, received some donations from counts Guzelinus and Henry of Schwerin. The Hospitallers were equally well established at Eichsen in the bishopric of Ratzeburg (1200). According to Nowak and Borchardt, there were also three Hospitaller houses in Pommern – Stargard on the Ferse, Stargard on the Ihna, and Schlawe, settled in the 1180s; all three participated in the conversion of Prussia at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Finally, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Templars too set up two houses in Schlesien – Klein-Oels and Liegnitz.

All these records indicate that there was a massive Templar and Hospitaller presence within those same areas where the Livonian crusade was preached in the early thirteenth century. The first reliable evidence that a group of peregrini, following a different propositum of regular life, was indeed active in Livonia, together with monks and canons regular, consists of a letter sent by Innocent III on 19 April 1201. In it, the pope responded to questions addressed to him by the Livonian Bishop Albert, who had sent the Cistercian monk Theodoric to Rome to ask for a proclamation of a new crusade against the heathens. Taking up papal provisions over compliance with drinking and eating regulations, given to preachers in Livonia by Clement III and extended to clothing by Celestine III in 1193, Innocent III now stated that the propositum of the monks leading a regular life and wearing the monastic habit should be united with that of the canons regular vel alii etiam regularem vitam sub alia districtione professi. Accordingly, it might be suggested that among the alii regularem vitam sub alia districtione professi, there were also some brethren from the foundations of the military orders in north-central Germany working on behalf of the German preaching mission of Bishop Albert. They probably represent the original group of the Militia Christi de Livonia created between 1202 and 1203. At that time, according to Henry of Livonia’s Chronicon, Theodoric, Cistercian abbot of Dünamünde, close to Riga, established the Militia Christi. Preoccupied with pagan attacks and their numerical superiority, Theodoric organized a group of the faithful in accordance with Bishop Albert’s aim to carry out Innocent III’s stated aim of 1199, when he had asked the bishop to assemble an army. As Arnold of Lubeck also points out in his Chronica, Theodoric gathered round him those milites who came to Livonia and decided to stay, ‘voventes continentias et soli Deo militare cupientes’. From the beginning, the Sword Brothers adopted their propositum of regular life, taking the vows of chastity and poverty, and following the existing Templar Rule, which was closely related to the Cistercian tradition as represented by Theodoric himself. Both he and Albert gave shape to the new military order, organized sub obedientia episcopi with the duty of converting the heathen and defending the Church in Livonia.

In the summer of 1203, Theodoric went to Rome to give Innocent III notice of the achievements gained by Albert’s preaching and by the hard work of the many pilgrims in Livonia. It was probably at this time that the pope made the acquaintance of the new military order. On 12 October 1204, soon after Theodoric’s visit to Rome, Innocent III addressed a letter to Archbishop Hartwig II of Hamburg-Bremen. He highlighted the fact that Albert’s division of the preachers had resulted in three religious orders (tres religiosorum ordines) – the orders of monks and canons regular, ‘who were fighting the heathen with the spiritual weapons of discipline and doctrine’, and that of the laymen (fideles laici), who adopted the habit of the Templars and defended the mission viriliter et potenter against the heathen. The fideles laici, brought together by Albert and Theodoric into the Militia Christi and clothed in the Templar habitus, were indeed concerned to defend the mission (novella plantatio fidei) against pagan attacks viriliter et potenter, employing the material sword. Once more, Innocent III cast his mind back to the letter of 5 October 1199, by which he had left the defence of preachers and faithful in Livonia to the army gathered in God’s name (in nomine Domini) using the same expression potenter et viriliter with relation to the army (exercitus).

Shortly after 1204, as Henry of Livonia points out, the Militia Christi joined up with crusaders from Germany and, since 1206, those from Denmark. They vowed to take part in the Livonian crusade, which was once more being preached by Albert in Germany. By 1207, the whole of Livonia had almost been converted to Christianity as a result of the work of the missionaries and the brothers of the Militia Christi. Subsequently, the bishop divided the converted lands on the east bank of the Düna River into three ecclesiastical districts. Treiden was given to Caupo, one of the first heathens converted to Christianity; Riga was placed under the care of the bishop; and Methsepole, the easternmost region exposed to pagan attacks, was granted to the Militia Christi. Nevertheless, the Sword Brothers asked Albert for one third of the bishop’s tithes, collected from the lands of converts and pagans, in order to support themselves and in return for their duties. Albert agreed to leave to the milites just one third of the bishop’s tithes accrued from the converts’ lands, but denied them dues on those of the pagans’. His only partial consent to the Brothers’ request to receive one third of the bishop’s tithes brought about a serious dispute between the same bishop and the milites Christi.

Between 1208 and 1209, the mission to Livonia had been extended to include the northern coast of the Baltic Sea, inhabited by Estonians. The Sword Brothers of the Militia Christi were first and foremost involved in this, since Bishop Albert had given them the lands of Methsepole and Wenden, bordering on Estonia. The earliest Livonian document was thus drawn up, providing evidence of the presence of the Sword Brothers in that area – a donatio iure feudi of some lands close to Ydowen, in the Methsepole’s area, which Wenno, the first master of the Militia Christi, granted to the Livonian Manegintes and his brethern between 1207 and 1209.

The dispute between Bishop Albert and the Militia Christi grew worse as a result of further military conquests undertaken by Christians against the heathen and, in October 1210, the situation was brought to the attention of Innocent III. Bishop Albert and Volquinus, the new master of the Militia Christi, went to Rome to seek papal intervention in the sharing out of the lands of converts and pagans in Livonia. Innocent III mediated, giving the Sword Brothers one third of the lands of the converts in Lectia seu Livonia. The milites were to offer no temporal service, other than their defence of the Church in Livonia, but the master of the Militia Christi was to render obedience (obedientia) to his bishop. The Pope also exempted clerics, engaged in the cure of souls of the brothers, from paying the bishop’s tithes and oblations. Furthermore, the coloni of the Militia Christi had to pay tithes to their parish churches, one-fourth of which would go to the bishop. Finally, the Sword Brothers were given the right to nominate to their bishop suitable persons, personae idoneae, to perform the cure of souls. On his part, the bishop was awarded the right to visitation, while the Brothers would be entitled to one-third of those lands settled and converted outside Livonia. Innocent III also allowed the Sword Brothers to follow the Rule of the Temple, even though they were distinguished by the sign (signum) on their habit. This meant that the Militia Christi de Livonia was an exempt order of the Church. The Milites were also granted burial rights.

In the second of his letters addressed to Master Volquinus, Innocent III granted the requests submitted to him by both parties – the Militia Christi and the bishop. Actually, the Pope seemed anxious to grant the Brothers’ requests to have their rights recognized to converted lands as well as over lands which would be settled in the future. Moreover, Innocent III confirmed the rights of Bishop Albert concerning obedience and stressed that the Militia Christi had been set up to defend the Church against pagan attacks and to assist Livonia’s conversion to Christianity. Additionally, the Pope stressed the right of the Sword Brothers to choose the clerics performing the cure of their souls. In the end, according to the situation in Livonia, Innocent III confirmed that the Militia Christi de Livonia had adopted the Rule of the Temple, but declared that they should henceforth be distinguished from the Templars by the sign (signum) on their clothing, just as the Brothers had requested.

In 1210, the new military order was officially established and recognized by the Apostolic See on the basis of agreements reached in Livonia since 1203. In spite of the above-mentioned papal arbitration, conflicts between the bishop and the Sword Brothers in Livonia continued throughout the thirteenth century. Then, between 1316 and 1318 a new controversy broke out, involving Frederick, archbishop of Riga, and the Teutonic Knights, whose order had joined with the Sword Brothers in 1236. The new allegations were discussed at the Papal Curia in Avignon. To defend their rights against the archbishop, the Teutonic Knights turned to the two letters Innocent III had issued in 1210. Their report, however, omitted the three clauses which had ensured the Sword Brothers’ servitium temporale to their bishop. Instead they sustained an account which completely favoured their order, enabling it to prove its case against that of the archbishop’s.

When in the first half of 1211 the papal judgment over the dispute between the bishop and the master of the Militia Christi was known in Livonia, John, the Provost of Riga’s cathedral chapter, and the Brothers of the Militia reached a new agreement. As a result of this, Livonia was indeed divided into three ecclesiastical districts: two, the southern and western lands, were given as part of the bishop’s revenue; the third, consisting of the north-eastern region, was allotted to the Militia Christi.

Innocent III concurred with this new state of affairs that the mission and the crusade had brought to Livonia. The Christian mission to Livonia had originally aimed at preaching the Gospel to the heathen and converting them to Christianity by means of the ‘spiritual sword’. For this purpose, in 1199 and 1204 the Pope allowed Bishop Albert of Livonia to preach the crusade against the Livonians. Nevertheless the pilgrimage had become an instrument of defence for preachers and converts alike, in accordance with the handling of the ‘material sword’. It was under these circumstances that a completely new military order was established, symbolically and in name identified by the sign (signum) of the Sword.

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