Lithuanian Grand-Duke Jagiełło’s brothers wanted heavier cannons to oppose the Teutonic Knights’ new weapons, but since gun carriages did not exist yet the heavy weapons could only be transported by water. Because the Teutonic Knights controlled the lower reaches of the Nemunas River, the only route from Poland to Lithuania was from the Vistula up the Bug River to the Narew, then up that river’s tributaries until close to streams that led down to the Nemunas at Gardinas. Cannon could be dragged over a short portage, or perhaps even transported the entire way over the many bodies of water in the Masurian Lake district. Not unexpectedly, the Teutonic Knights sought to block this route by building forts in the wilderness north of the Narew. This presented some complications, because that land belonged to the Masovian dukes, but it did hinder Jagiełło’s efforts to send assistance to his brothers. The wilderness had been unoccupied since the withdrawal of the Sudovians to the east, and empty of all humans other than raiding parties from Prussia, Lithuania, and Masovia. But technically it was still Masovian.
Meanwhile the war had become even more brutal than before.
The Teutonic Knights decapitated any Poles captured in the Lithuanian forts –
they accused them of apostasy and aiding pagans – and the crusader raids into
Samogitia met so little resistance that they were little more than manhunts. In
reprisal the Samogitians occasionally sacrificed prisoners to their gods,
burning knights alive, tied to their mounts in full armour over a giant pyre,
or shooting them full of arrows while bound to a sacred tree. Even so, the war
was not continuous. Despite the desperate nature of the fighting, there were
truces and sudden changes in alliances; and nothing disturbed the universal
love of hunting, for which special truces were arranged.
Although Vytautas was a crusader ally, as he saw his
ancestral lands being destroyed he began to look for an alternative means of
returning to power in Vilnius. Intellectually, he understood that it was most
logical to join forces with his cousin, but Vytautas was a passionate man, not
always ruled by his mind. Besides, he had not forgotten Jagiełło’s past
treacheries and, well-aware of assassination plots, he surrounded himself with
Tatar bodyguards. Consequently Vytautas was an emotional pendulum, swinging
from one side to the other, forced to seek help from someone, but not liking
any of the available allies. The Teutonic Knights took a cynical but
philosophical view of this, as one chronicler stated: ‘Pagans rarely do what is
right, as the broken treaties of Vytautas and his relatives prove’.
Still, when he considered the situation rationally Vytautas
saw his present alliance with the Teutonic Order as a losing strategy. Victory
under such circumstances would make him an impoverished ruler, hated by his own
people and dependent upon the goodwill of the grand master. He may have sent a
message to Jagiełło, somehow evading the order’s efforts to watch over his
every move; if so, it was undoubtedly vague, the kind which would do no harm if
discovered. Or perhaps Jagiełło merely sensed that the time was ripe to make
his cousin a proposal. All that is known for certain is that in early August
1392 Jagiełło sent Bishop Henryk of Płock to Prussia as his emissary. This
rather unpriestly Piast prince-bishop was related by marriage to the king’s
sister, Alexandra of Masovia. Henryk used the opportunity provided by
confession to inform Vytautas of his master’s propositions. Vytautas, under the
pretext of allowing his wife to make a visit home, told Anna to negotiate with
Jagiełło; he also managed to secure the release of many hostages who had been
kept in honourable captivity in scattered fortresses. Then he gave his sister
in marriage to Bishop Henryk and dismissed the English crusaders who had just
arrived to join another invasion of Lithuania. He thus eliminated from the game
the most dangerous bowmen in Europe, warriors who had been so effective in
recent battles with Jagiełło’s subjects.
Vytautas plotted his betrayal carefully, arranging for the
Samogitian warriors stationed in the crusader castles entrusted to him to kill
or capture the Germans in the garrisons. After this had succeeded, he sent
Lithuanian armies on widely separated fronts into Prussia and Livonia and
overwhelmed what forces the Teutonic Knights still had in Samogitia. Vytautas’
return to Lithuania was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Every Samogitian
appreciated his courage and cunning, contrasted his genial personality with
Jagiełło’s vengeful brothers, and understood that the series of military
disasters was likely now at an end; and the highlanders were happy to see the
reign of foreigners – Poles – at an end.
It was a year before Grand Master Wallenrode was able to
take his revenge. In January of 1393 he struck at Gardinas, employing Dutch and
French knights. This threatened to cut the major communication route between
Masovia and Vilnius, effectively isolating Lithuania. Vytautas and Jagiełło
appealed to the papal legate to arrange for peace talks, which did in fact take
place in Thorn in the summer. After ten days, however, Wallenrode became ill
and left the conference. A short while later he died.
The new grand master, Conrad von Jungingen, was a decisive
leader of far-reaching plans and far-reaching vision. Regional peace could be
achieved, he believed, by a decisive victory in Vilnius, the one location that
Vytautas and Jagiełło had to defend with all their might.
Already collecting in Prussia in the waning days of 1393 was
a great army of French and German crusaders, among whom was a body of
Burgundian archers (perhaps English mercenaries) whose concentrated firepower
had the potential to savage the pagans quite as badly as they had mauled French
armies in recent years. The crusaders began their march up the Nemunas in
January 1394, relying on the thick ice to serve as a highway into the
Lithuanian heartland. Vytautas attempted to halt the crusader march early on,
but he barely escaped death under the first barrage of his enemies’ missile
weapons, and his army was badly routed. The Lithuanian stand turned into a
hurried retreat before the 400 advancing crusader knights and their thousands
of sergeants and infantry.
Vytautas received a reinforcement from Poland, a strong
contingent of knights, to join the 15,000 mounted warriors under his command,
but their numbers were insufficient to stop the advance of the now much-feared
archers into the heart of his country. The crusaders passed through forests,
swamps, and open fields, evading ambushes, to reach Vilnius, where Vytautas was
joined by his Rus’ian troops. The grand prince fought a desperate engagement,
giving and taking heavy losses until his Rus’ian wing fled and was followed by
one Lithuanian unit after the other. At last, he, too, had to retreat, and
again he barely escaped the field alive. While Vytautas sought to rally his
scattered and demoralised forces at a safe distance, the Teutonic Knights settled
down to besiege his capital, a place they knew well from 1390. They made new
plans to celebrate the conversion of the Lithuanians, this time assured by
their arms that the baptismal ceremony would take place properly – a true
conversion, not the ambiguous promises of Jagiełło and Vytautas, whose
Christian names were used only in formal documents. What further proof, the
crusaders asked, did anyone need that their allegiance to Rome was very thin?
On the eighth day of the siege the Livonian master arrived to
reinforce the crusader host. He was welcomed heartily, for now the crusaders
could surround the entire city, contain the sorties from the fortress, and make
a determined assault on the wall at its weakest point. The Livonian forces were
sent to the river front, where they built two bridges, then rode across the
river to plunder the countryside. In this foraging they lost fifty men (only
three of them German and only one a knight, indicating that a large native
contingent was present) while killing and capturing ‘innumerable’ Lithuanians.
Nevertheless, the siege did not go well. After another week of fighting, the
firing posts that the engineers had built for the archers, the siege towers,
and the bridges were destroyed by an inferno that the garrison set during a
sortie. Nevertheless, the crusaders had some successes – their artillery had
brought down a stone tower and set fire to various wooden fortifications. Soon
afterward, however, the Lithuanians set a tower in the crusader camp ablaze,
which not only caused extensive casualties among the French but destroyed most
of the supplies, so that the crusaders would be unable to remain at Vilnius as
long as planned. The grand master allowed the war of engineers to continue four
more days, but it was obvious that the Lithuanians could destroy new siege
works almost as fast as the crusaders could build them. An assault would
require more time to prepare than the army could be kept fed by its remaining
supplies. Also, Vytautas had been regrouping his scattered forces. Scouts were
reporting that he would soon be coming to relieve the city. This meant that the
crusaders would have to fight on two fronts – an unattractive prospect.
The leaders of the crusader armies met, discussed their
situation, and reluctantly agreed to abandon the siege. The grand master sent
the Livonian forces home first, then moved west himself, harassed by
Lithuanians cutting down trees across the road, fortifying the river crossings,
and laying ambushes in the woods. The Prussian force alternately negotiated and
fought its way along the route away from Vilnius, then abruptly changed
direction and marched through Samogitia, thereby avoiding Vytautas’ army and
the obstacles he had erected.
The expedition had been one of the most memorable enterprises
of the medieval era – the siege of an enemy capital with knights and military
specialists drawn from all of Europe – and a chivalric exploit worthy of any
land; but the capture of the greatest city in Lithuania was beyond the ability
of the crusaders. The war continued, with the Teutonic Order striking up the
Nemunas River and ravaging the Samogitian settlements; they were far from
attempting another invasion of the highlands, farther yet from Jagiełło’s
capital. The Lithuanians remained on the defensive, biding their time. They had
no reason to risk everything on a pitched battle, no reason to carry the war
back into Prussia. Not yet, at least.
By the end of 1393 Vytautas was master of Lithuania. He had
driven all Jagiełło’s brothers from the land, and when his forces won a major
battle in 1394, crushing the Volhynian, Galician, and Moldavian dukes, Jagiełło
completely abandoned his brothers to their fate: Kaributas went into exile in
Cracow; the Moldavian ruler also fled to Cracow, where he was imprisoned;
Skirgaila died in Kiev in 1396, probably poisoned; and Svidrigailo fought for
the Teutonic Order briefly before achieving a reconciliation. The former
bishop, Henryk, died, unmourned, of poison.
Jagiełło retained the title of supreme prince, and Vytautas
was satisfied with the lesser title of great prince until his very last days.
But as time passed, so real authority passed into the hands of Vytautas.
Meanwhile the crusader raids into Lithuania continued. Not
only were the Prussian forces constantly in Samogitia, but so too was the black
and white banner of the Livonian master – a black centre stripe horizontally
flanked by white, with contrasting triangular tails fluttering behind. The last
raid into Samogitia came in the winter of 1398, when the crusaders took 700
prisoners and 650 horses, and killed many people; they had surprised the
defenders by entering the country during changeable weather, a gamble that had
rarely proven worth the risk before, but paid high returns when successful.
Vytautas did not retaliate. He was campaigning in southern Rus’, longing for an
end to the troublesome northern war that was hindering his chances for success
on the steppe. Only his promise to Jagiełło stood in the way of making peace.
Of course, promises were not serious obstacles to Vytautas.
Vytautas had an excuse to refuse obedience to Polish orders
soon afterward, when Jadwiga (who – not Jagiełło – was legally rex of Poland)
demanded a tax from the Lithuanians, a tax that Vytautas’ boyars had no desire
to pay. The royal demand was not unreasonable. Vytautas had depended on Polish
aid to defend Samogitia, and Polish nobles and clergy were asking why they had
to bear all the costs, while the Lithuanians paid nothing. The Poles probably
reasoned that Vytautas had no choice, and that no matter how much he protested,
in the end he would make his subjects pay.
This presumed reasoning underestimated Vytautas. The grand
prince was not fixated on Samogitia. Instead, he was studying the situation on
the steppe. In the process of driving Jagiełło’s brothers from their lands in
southern Rus’, Vytautas had confirmed suspicions that the Tatar hold on the
region had weakened. Moreover, his popularity among his people would be
seriously undermined if he appeared to be a mere Polish puppet.
Vytautas understood that if he did not pay the tax he would
have to sue for peace with at least one enemy. Better the Teutonic Order than
the Tatars, he reasoned, for it was against the weakened Tatars that he saw the
best prospects of territorial expansion. In contrast to the potential conquest
of the steppe, he could at best fight a defensive war against the Teutonic
Knights. Peace with the grand master, of course, could be had only at a price –
Samogitia. Fortunately for Vytautas, Jagiełło was caught up in the dream of
driving the Tatars from the steppe too, removing them forever as a threat to
his Polish and Lithuanian frontiers; and his Polish subjects, who had lived for
generations in fear of the Tatars, agreed. It helped that Jadwiga knew the
grand master personally and liked him; she had always wanted peace with Prussia
and had encouraged the many inconclusive meetings with the grand master’s
representatives in the past. Now it appeared that there was the likelihood of a
breakthrough in the negotiation process.
Peace talks with the Teutonic Order culminated in September
1398 in the Treaty of Sallinwerder, which surrendered Samogitia to the Germans.
Vytautas and Jagiełło led their armies to Kaunas, where the last pagans of
Samogitia surrendered to the Teutonic Order. The Samogitians growled, but they
understood that they could not fight without the grand prince of Lithuania and
the prince-consort of Poland. Besides, they had been under crusader control before,
and it had not lasted.
The next year, in the summer of 1399, a great army of
Lithuanians, Rus’ians, Tatars, Poles, and Teutonic Knights rode out onto the
steppe to challenge Timur’s domination there. The result was another military
disaster. Had Vytautas been successful,
the history of the Teutonic Order would have taken a new and more exotic turn
than anyone had previously imagined. But even defeat on the steppe did not mean
a return to the old ways. In the years to come some Teutonic Knights would
accompany Vytautas against Rus’ian foes as far away as Moscow, and others would
board ships to destroy a pirate stronghold on the island of Gotland.
It appeared that the crusade was at an end. The Teutonic
Order had achieved its goal, the Christianisation of most pagans and the conquest
of the rest. The Teutonic Knights still welcomed a handful of crusaders to
assist in garrisoning their castles in Samogitia, but the crusade was
essentially over by 1400
Interestingly, the greatest complaints against the Teutonic
Order came from those churchmen who were unhappy that the grand master was not
forcing his new subjects to undergo baptism immediately. Conrad von Jungingen
was instead pursuing a policy of economic development, and creating from the
many petty Lithuanian boyars a smaller, dependable ruling class. He assumed,
probably correctly, that in the course of time, this would result in the
voluntary conversion of these stubborn woodsmen.
Vytautas believed that too. He secretly encouraged the
Samogitians to hold out. He would soon be coming to free them again.