Horses and Crossbows: Two Important Warfare Advantages of the Teutonic Order in Prussia

Horses and Crossbows: Two Important Warfare Advantages of the Teutonic Order in Prussia

By Sven Ekdahl

The Military Orders, Volume 2: Welfare and Warfare, edited by Helen Nicholson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998)

Introduction: The thirteenth-century conquest of Livonia and Prussia by the Order of the Swordbrothers and its successor, the Teutonic Knights, would not have been possible if the numerically weaker knights and crusaders had not enjoyed certain advantages over the heathen peoples. These included several innovations in military techniques as well as experience gained by Christians in the Holy Land and other theatres of war. One such innovation was the erection of permanent fortresses in stone or brick: the manufacture of bricks and mortar was unknown in the eastern Baltic until then. Another innovation was the introduction of the crossbow, which, as a long-range weapon, proved to be superior to the spears and bows of the heathens. The combination of these two developments made it possible for the Order’s garrisons to withstand long sieges, provided they had sufficient supplies of food, weapons and crossbow bolts. Conquered territories were secured systematically with fortresses which were sited strategically in places suited to commerce and communications, most often along major river routes. These, together with the fortified larger towns, composed the backbone of the new military states in east-central Europe.

During the fourteenth century, particularly in Prussia, there were also fortifications of the traditional style which, like the heathen garrisons, were built of timber and earth, in addition to the new stone and/or brick fortresses. The former were often constructed within a few weeks in the summer during expeditions into enemy territory.

The fortresses served to secure those territories which were already under the control of the Order. However, it was also important that new military operations could be carried out from them. With this, the third great innovation in the Order’s military technique came into its own, namely the heavy cavalry against which the heathen forces were in most cases inferior. Only when these armoured cavalrymen could not use their strength to full advantage, as when they were fighting in boggy terrain or with poor visibility, was it possible for the light cavalry and infantry of the local population to defend themselves successfully and win victories. An example of this was the important victory of the Lithuanians and Semigallians over the Swordbrothers at Saule in 1236. Christian losses on the moor at Saule were so high that the Order of the Swordbrothers was unable to recover and a year later it was amalgamated with the Teutonic Order by a papal bull. Under normal conditions the armoured cavalry equipped with lances, spears and swords was able to crush everything in its path in one powerful attack. Their armour alone generally protected them from the impact of spears and arrows; however, if his horse fell, the heavily armed rider was very vulnerable because of his immobility. His life depended on the quality and battle worthiness of his war-horse, his destrier (dextrarius).

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