The Sword Brothers at War: Observations on the Military Activity of the Knighthood of Christ in the Conquest of Livonia and Estonia (1203–1227)

Livonian Sword Brothers - 19th century imageThe Sword Brothers at War: Observations on the Military Activity of the Knighthood of Christ in the Conquest of Livonia and Estonia (1203–1227)

By Alan V. Murray

Ordines Miltares Colloquia Torunensia Historica: Yearbook for the Study of the Military Orders, Vol.18 (2013)


Introduction: The Knighthood of Christ of Livonia (Militia Christi de Livonia) was the first of the medieval military religious orders to be founded for service outside the Holy Land and Iberia, and thus the first one to be actively involved in warfare anywhere in northern Europe. It was established on the model of the Templars, and indeed the order’s members are referred to as Templars in the earliest correspondence between the church of Livonia and the papacy around the time of its foundation. The vernacular name “Sword Brothers”, by which they later became known, derives from the insignia of the cross and sword that they were given to distinguish them outwardly from their model.

The monumental character of Friedrich Benninghoven’s monograph Der Orden der Schwertbrüder, which superseded Friedrich von Bunge’s earlier work of the same name, is to a large extent responsible for the relatively small number of studies devoted to the order. However, it should be noted that Benninghoven dealt primarily with the foundation and organisation of the order and its relations with the papacy and the other ecclesiastical and secular powers in Livonia; in his monograph he announced a separate future study on warfare in the eastern Baltic region, although to my knowledge no such publication ever appeared. While scholarship on the military activity of the much better documented Teutonic Order has flourished, several issues concerning warfare in the time of the Sword Brothers still warrant closer investigation, and in this essay I would like to discuss some of the practical aspects of this topic in the period between the order’s foundation and the conquest of Estonia in the mid-1220s.

The foundation of the Sword Brothers occurred on the initiative of Albert of Buxhövden, the third bishop of Livonia, and his associate, the Cistercian Theoderic of Treiden, in 1202–1203, in order to provide a permanent professional military force for the missionary church of Livonia, which up to that time had been solely dependent on the seasonal service of crusaders from northern Germany and the small number of immigrants in the newly founded city of Riga. The Knighthood of Christ was not an exempt order, but was placed by Pope Innocent III under the obedience of the bishop of Livonia. This status highlights one important difference between the Sword Brothers and the military religious orders previously established in Syria and Palestine. The Templars, Hospitallers, Lazarites and other orders were supranational organisations exempt from any secular or ecclesiastical authority except for the pope, although as far as military activities were concerned, they were subject to the tactical command and direction of the rulers of the principalities of Outremer. By contrast, while the Sword Brothers were intended to be subject to the authority of the bishop of Livonia, circumstances meant that they exercised considerable responsibility in military matters.


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