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The Prussian Uprisings: A Story of Knights, Pagans, Traitors, and Miracles

By Patrick Eickman

Before 1242, the Teutonic Order was a rising power in the Baltic. The Knights had conquered most of Prussia, incorporated the Livonian Order, and were pressing into Russia; in a few short years they would be fighting for their very survival. Following the Order’s disastrous defeat at the Battle on the Ice, Prussian tribesmen, backed by both Pomeranian Christians, and Lithuanian pagans, launched a series of rebellions which nearly broke the Teutonic Order’s grasp on the Baltic and left an indelible mark on the knight brothers’ psyche. In what would be called the Prussian uprisings, the pagan tribes succeeded in destroying all but three of the Teutonic Order’s strongholds and almost reversed all of the knight’s gains in the region. While the Teutonic knights never faced such a challenge before, the Prussian uprisings were part of a long tradition for their pagan opponents.

The Prussians resisted Christian incursions into their land nearly 200 years before the Teutonic Order was formed in Acre. The Prussians were a Baltic people comprised of multiple tribes such as the Sambia, and the Natangia. Although much of what we know about their pagan faith is based on the writings of their enemies, it’s clear that their faith is similar to that of Germanic and Greek paganism. Polish dukes and kings sent both missionaries and soldiers to Prussia as early as 997 to expand their domain. The Prussians responded by executing the missionaries and raiding Polish territory for loot and slaves. Despite multiple expeditions, Poland was only able to gain a foothold in the land of Culm and could not stop the Prussian raids. By 1215, Prussian raiders, incentivized by Konrad I of Masovia’s (1187–1247) policy of paying raiders tribute, reached as far as Konrad I’s castle in Plock and besieged Culm’s fortress. With the High Duke of Poland unable to defend his own territory, outside intervention became a necessity.

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In 1217 Pope Honorius III (1150–1227) allowed Christian of Oliva (d.1245), the bishop of Culm, to organize a crusade against the Prussians. With the assistance of outside nobles such as Henry of Silesia (1196–1241), Christian rebuilt the fortress of Culm by 1222, restoring Christendom’s foothold in Prussia. Unfortunately for Christian, persuading German and Polish nobles to permanently occupy newly conquered territory, instead of returning home, proved to be a far more difficult task than organizing a crusade. In order to create a permanent force against the Prussians, Christian and Konrad I formed the Order of Dobrzyń. Originally composed of 14 or 15 German knight brothers; they proved ineffective when Prussian raiders nearly killed the Order to a man and retook Chelmno. The survivors were only able to find refuge in the Duchy of Pomerania ruled by Swietopelk II (1190/1200–1266). Konrad I was forced to turn to a stronger alternative: The Teutonic Order.

The Teutonic Order and the Conquest of Prussia

Originally formed as a hospital in the Latin East in 1190, the Teutonic Order under Grand Master Hermann von Salza (1165–1239) began gaining experience fighting European pagans. From 1211 to 1225, the Teutonic Knights fought the nomadic Cumans in Transylvania on behalf of Andrew II of Hungary (1177–1235) before being expelled for forming their own state.

Although Christian of Oliva asked for Teutonic Order’s assistance in 1226, Hermann von Salza waited until 1230 to send an expedition of seven knights and 100 squires when the Holy Roman Empire and Poland recognized the Order’s right to rule conquered Prussian territory with the Golden Bull of Rimini, and the Treaty of Kruszwica, respectively. The expedition built the castle of Vogelsang on the Vistula river and began their crusade against the Prussians once reinforcements of 20 Teutonic Knights, and 200 sergeants under the command of Hermann Balk (d.1239).

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Despite limited resources, the first Order’s expeditions conquered much of Prussia through a combination of alliances, fortifications, and asymmetric warfare. Although the Latin East was a priority for both the Teutonic Order and secular crusaders, this did not prevent German, Polish, Bohemian, and other European nobility, from joining the Knights on yearly reisen, or raids. These reisen would be composed of thousands of soldiers, ranging from knights, to mercenaries, to Prussian auxiliaries, who had converted to Christianity. With these large crusading armies, and the help of a Prussian defector, the Teutonic Knights first attacked the neighboring Pomesanian tribe, captured their king, and reclaimed Thron and Kulm in 1232. When the crusading nobility returned home, the Order secured the region through the building of castles and forts alongside smaller reisen of their own.

These raids did not capture territory, but kept pressure on the Prussians; one such raid resulted in Hermann Balk hanging a Prussian leader on a sacred tree. Other raids mirrored the chevauchees of the Hundred Years’ War, with the burning of crops and villages. Through this combination of reisen with large bands of visiting crusaders, and the continuous construction of fortifications, the Teutonic Order saw rapid success, and by 1240, conquered most of Prussia.

In a decade, the Teutonic Order was able to nominally convert much of the Prussian population to Christianity and bring a multitude of German settlers to the region. Not only did German immigrants help the Teutonic Order spread Christianity to Prussia, but they provided the Knights a substantial tax base. The Teutonic Order encouraged German immigration through economic incentives such as free land, and by offering trading privileges to merchants.

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Image by Space Cadet / Wikimedia Commons

The First Prussian Uprising in 1242

This rapid success of the Teutonic Order in Prussia set the stage for the First Prussian Uprising, by secretly keeping their faith while maintaining their language and traditions. Swietopelk II eyed the Knights’ expansion nervously. The Pomeranian duke participated the Teutonic Knights’ reisen, but when it became clear that these annual campaigns only enlarged the Order’s domain, he began looking for an opportunity to betray them. His chance came in 1242 after Alexander Nevsky’s decisive victory over the Teutonic Knights in the Battle on the Ice near the Order’s other holdings in Livonia. Swietopelk II encouraged the Prussians to rebel while he began raiding the Knights’ holdings on the Vistula River with a fleet of 20 ships. Despite the warnings from Pope Innocent IV’s (1195–1254) legate, Bishop William of Modena (1184–1251), Swietopelk II began leading the Prussian rebels himself, who brought the Teutonic Order to its knees.

Nicolaus von Jeroschin’s (1290–1341) The Chronicle of Prussia, best describes the sheer scale of the First Prussian Uprising:

When the Prussians from all over the country had come together in rebellion, this deceitful, disloyal prince, became their duke and their commander, and travelled with them into lower Prussia, causing great damage and wreaking havoc among the Christians; because with his arm outstretched, and weapons in his hand, the Devil’s champion killed and martyred all the old Christians who had come from Germany to protect the faith and settle there. Their wives and children were taken prisoner in scenes of great wretchedness, and kept as slaves in perpetual captivity. It was pitiful to see these noble women, who had been brought up as gentlewomen, who now had to suffer such painful humiliation and were brutally forced to work. It was the worst imaginable situation for them. Anyone who witnessed the wretchedness and humiliation inflicted on them there should avenge it. Brother Konrad von Dortmund, a pure warrior, and careful in battle and warfare, was killed with all his men. In this desperate situation, all the fortresses were captured from the Christians by their malevolent visitors, so that none were left under their control in the area between Balga and Elbing. (Balga = Veseloe (Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave in Lithuania, formerly German East Prussia).

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These scenes repeated themselves in upper Prussia where the rebels under Swietopelk II destroyed all the Teutonic Knights’ castles save Thorn, Kulm, and Rehden. The Teutonic Order recovered, and with a small band of knights under Dietrich von Bernheim captured the Pomerelian castle of Sartowitz, and routed the army sent to recapture Swietopelk II’s stronghold. This battle holds significance in Nicolaus von Jeroschin’s chronicle as it is the site where the Teutonic Order miraculously find the head of St. Barbara (3rd-4th century), a revered figure of the Teutonic Order. Swietopelk II initially made peace with the Teutonic Order, but struck them again in 1244 at the Battle of Rensen.

The Battle of Rensen nearly cost the Teutonic Order the castle of Kulm. The Teutonic Order rallied an army of 400 to confront Swietopelk II’s second incursion and caught the Prussians crossing a swamp. Brother Dietrich, the hero of Sartowitz, suggested that the Knights strike the Prussians in the rear in order to have room to maneuver and flee. His superior, Brother Berlwin, a marshal, disagreed and ordered a charge against the Prussian front.

Initially the Knights routed all that opposed them, but were soon surrounded by 4,000 Prussian warriors. In the forested and swampy terrain, the Teutonic Knights could not properly utilize their crossbowmen, or their heavily armored mounted knights. The Prussians killed all but ten of a 400 man army. With most of Kulm’s defenders dead, it appeared that Swietopelk II would quickly take the Teutonic Order’s stronghold. However, with the use of crossbows and heavy armor, the Teutonic Knights forced Swietopelk II’s besieging army to retreat to their boats on the Vistula River. Disaster struck as a stiff wind blew Swietopelk II’s ships far from the shore. Many routing Prussians subsequently drowned and Swietopelk II only escaped with a few of his men.

Misfortune struck Swietopelk II again in 1246 when the Teutonic Knights successfully escaped an ambush on the outskirts of Torun. It appeared that the First Prussian Uprising would result in a bloody stalemate. The stalemate broke thanks to the outside intervention of the papal legate, now Jacques Pantaleon (later Pope Urban IV, 1195–1264), and secular crusaders. Angered by Swietopelk II’s alliance with Prussian pagans, William of Modena called for a crusade against the Duchy of Pomerania. The princes of Poland answered, eager to throw Swietopelk II out of the Vistula River and draw concessions out of Master von Grΰningen of the Teutonic Order. The Polish princes forced the Knights to create three bishoprics from their conquests, while promising to share future conquests with Polish crusaders; the Teutonic Order avoided this later obligation by relying on other alliances that maligned Polish interference.

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With Polish help, the Teutonic Order forced the Prussians to negotiate a truce, mediated by Jacques Pantaleon. The initial conflict ended with the Treaty of Christburg on February 2, 1249. The treaty acknowledged the grievances of Prussian converts to Christianity against the Teutonic Order, promised to uphold civil liberties of Prussian Christians, and ended Swietopelk II’s alliance with the Prussian pagans. However the treaty failed to mention the status of Prussians pagans who refused to convert to Christianity, and hostility soon broke out again.

The Prussians took the Teutonic Order by surprise and surrounded the stronghold of Krΰcken November 1249. The garrison of 53 Teutonic Knights and their followers initially negotiated their peaceful surrender, but as soon as they laid down their arms, the Prussians immediately began killing and torturing their captives. After Krΰcken, the Teutonic Knights never surrendered to their Prussian adversaries again. Swietopelk II made one last attempt to assist the Prussians, but the arrival of crusading German nobles between 1251 and 1252, forced Swietopelk II and the Prussian rebels to sue for peace.

With the First Prussian Uprising over, the Teutonic Order was finally able to subdue all of Prussia. In 1254, King Ottokar II of Bohemia (1233–1278) a joined a Reisen, against the Sambia, the last independent Prussian tribe. He then paid for a fort in the region, named Königsberg in his honor. By 1259, the Sambians submitted to the Teutonic Order and nominally converted to Christianity. In less than 30 years, the Teutonic Knights had conquered all of Prussia, but The Great Prussian Uprising of 1260 illustrated that their conquests were not yet secure.

The Great Prussian Uprising in 1260

Once again the defeat of the knights in Livonia instigated Prussian uprisings. This time the Livonian Knights were defeated not by the Republic of Novgorod, but by the Duchy of Lithuania at the Battle of Durbe in 1260. The Lithuanians were the natural allies of the Prussians, as both were pagan Balts targeted by the Teutonic Order. With the death of 150 Teutonics at the hands of Lithuanian pagans, there was no better time for the Prussians to rebel against the Teutonic Order. The Great Prussian Uprising began, according to The Chronicle of Prussia, in September 1260, on the eve of St. Matthew’s Day when the Sambian, Warmia, Pogsanians, and the Natangians tribes selected their war-leaders. The war-leader of the Natangians, Herkus Monte (1225/1230–1273) was knowledgeable of siegecraft and the Teutonic Order’s tactics thanks to his education in Germany. The Chronicle of Prussia describes the opening of the Great Prussian Uprising in vivid detail:

They (the Prussians,) campaigned ferociously the length and breadth of the country, killing all the Christians they found outside fortresses. Some they bound and took into life-long slavery. In their frenzied hatred they also desecrated and burned down churches and chapels, consecrated or not.

Once again, the Teutonic Knights found themselves trapped in a few castles. Thankfully, for the knight-brothers, their former papal legate, Jacques Pantaleon, was now Pope Urban IV. On the behalf of Grand Master Anno von Sangerhausen (d.1273), Urban IV ordered crusaders originally set on fighting the Mongols to fight the Prussians instead. The crusaders under von Reider arrived in 1261, and and initially had a successful campaign in Natangia, “plundering and burning, killing and taking prisoners,” according to von Jeroschin. The crusaders made a fatal mistake splitting their forces following this success, a mistake Herkus Monte eagerly exploited. The Prussian war-leader annihilated half the crusading army and killed von Reider at the Battle of Pokarwen. Herkus Monte’s decisive victory routed the other half of the crusading army. Other crusading armies were more successful. In 1262 the counts of Jΰlich and Mark relieved the Teutonic Order’s garrison in Königsberg and reportedly killed 3,000 Sambian warriors with the help of a Christian Prussian scout. This victory did little to stop the Great Prussian Uprisings, and the Prussians quickly resumed their siege of Königsberg under the command of Monte.

Image by S. Bollmann / Wikimedia Commons

Using his knowledge of siege warfare, Monte constructed ships and large siege towers to surround Königsberg and starve the defenders. Seeing that the Prussians would be unable to take Königsberg directly, Monte planned to starve out the garrison. To do so, he needed to cut Königsberg’s seaport. Initially, the Prussians planned on blockading Königsberg with a navy, but the knights sent a saboteur to drill holes in the Prussian ships. In response, the Prussians built a bridge guarded by two large towers, blocking any shipments bound towards Königsberg, and sallied out in boats in a desperate bid to destroy the bridge. The weather favored the Teutonic Knights once again as the winds blew their ships directly towards the Prussian bridge, allowing them to destroy it. A frustrated Monte decided to storm the castle, but this decision only won him a grievous wound that prevented him from continuing his command. Nonetheless, the siege continued for three more years.

By 1264, the situation look bleak for the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. The Prussians killed two of their masters in Prussia and razed many of their strongholds including the fortress of Marienwerder. The handful of castles left in the hands of the Teutonic Order were all besieged by their pagan opponents. Relief began arriving in 1265, starting at Königsberg where a Livonian army joined the Teutonic Knights, and defeated the besieging Sambian army. That same year German crusaders led by Albrecht I von Braunschweig (1236–1279) and Albrecht II, the Degenerate (1240–1314), of Thuringia arrived in Prussia, but bad weather thwarted their campaign. In 1266, Swietopelk II died and his son Mestwin II (1220–1294) led Pomerania into another war against the Teutonic Order. This war ended in 1268, when Ottokar II of Bohemia led another crusading army into Prussia, and persuaded Mestwin to lay down his arms. Unfortunately for Ottokar II, a mild winter filled with mud made it impossible to attack the Prussian rebels. In 1271 the Prussians nearly captured Christburg, but suffered heavy casualties. The tide truly turned against the pagans in 1272 with the arrival of Margrave Dietrich of Meissen (ruled 1291–1307).

The subjugation of the Natangians by the Teutonic Knights spelled the beginning of the end of both the Great Prussian Uprising, and Prussian paganism as a whole. Although Herkus Monte and his Natangian army were experts in asymmetrical and siege warfare, they were no match for the joint army of the Order’s Dietrich of Meissen and Gunter von Regenstein. The crusaders razed a Prussian border fortress, and carved a path of destruction through Natangia as far as the town of Görken. Monte and his companions tried to avoid capture, but the Knights caught the infamous pagan leader alone while his followers were out on the hunt. The Teutonic Knights immediately hanged him from a tree, while running him through with a sword. The Prussian freedom fighter was dead. Before Dietrich left for home he presented 24 of his knights as members of the Teutonic Order.

The rest of Prussia fell quickly into the Teutonic Order’s hands following Monte’s demise. In 1274, the Teutonic Order marched into Pogesanian territory and seized the castle at Heilssberg. The castle acted as the final stronghold of the Great Prussian Uprising, and its capture brought about its swift end. The castle acted as the final stronghold of the Great Prussian Uprising, and its capture brought about its swift end. The Pogesanian tribe, alongside most of the Prussian tribes, submitted to the Teutonic Order. The Sudovians attempted to start another uprising following the failure of the Great Prussian Uprising, but the Knights quickly put it down. The Teutonic Knights had finally secured Prussia.

The Aftermath

There were occasional Prussian rebellions following the Great Prussian Uprising, but none put the Teutonic Knights in any real danger. By 1277, all the tribes in central Prussia were successfully incorporated into the State of the Teutonic Order. While border tribes such as the Yatwingians continued the fight, they were merely proxies for their more powerful Lithuanian neighbors. There were two more Prussian uprisings in 1286, and 1295 respectively, but not enough Prussians joined to endanger the Teutonic Knights. The defeated Prussians faced a choice: migrate to Lithuania and keep their faith, or stay in the traditional lands under the Catholic rule of the Teutonic Order. Many chose to continue living in Prussia.

Unsurprisingly, the Prussians who benefited the most from working with the Teutonic Order were nobles, especially those who had stayed loyal to the knights during the uprisings; Christianity brought these individuals material advantages such as property rights, rights of inheritance, and equality with German, and Polish immigrants. Most Prussians did not receive these rights and became serfs. The Prussian military tradition survived for a period, but this time, it fought on behalf of the Teutonic Knights against their Lithuanian opponents. Although Prussia began to Germanize rapidly following the end of the Prussian uprisings, their language did not disappear until the beginning of the 18th century. Only recently has the language been reconstructed by linguists.

The Teutonic Order emerged from the Prussian uprisings as a solidified power in the Baltic. Not only had they secured their possessions from Prussian rebels, but were beginning to become self-reliant. While the Order certainly needed the help of outside crusaders to survive the Prussian uprisings, the Teutonic Knights began to defend themselves by the end of the 13th century. Secular crusaders played a vital role in future reisen against Lithuania, but they arrived as guests of the Order, not its saviors. This helped make the State of the Teutonic Order in Prussia sovereign unto itself and not beholden to the demands of its secular neighbors.

Finally, the Prussian uprisings played a vital role in establishing the Teutonic Knights’ ideology and mythos. It should be unsurprising that the dramatic events that unfolded in these rebellions impacted the mentality of Teutonic Knights well beyond the memory of the actual participants. The Chronicle of Prussia, for example, is filled with stories of heroes and villains who made their mark during the Prussian uprisings. Some of these stories are about military matters, but others are about the psychological trauma of the events; and oftentimes these events are interwoven. The chronicle’s description of the Battle of Resnen is followed by a miracle in which the Virgin Mary comforts a soldier about to die on the field of battle. The Chronicle of Prussia was not written just as a history book, but as a source of healing and inspiration for the Teutonic Knights, who would often listen to this text; a knight struggling with the costs of war during the war against Lithuania could find comfort in the stories of the Prussian uprisings. It is necessary to study the Prussian uprisings in order to understand not only the history, but also the mentality, of the Teutonic Knights.

Patrick Eickman is a graduate student at Marquette University. Click here to follow him on Academia.edu

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Tannhäuser in the habit of the Teutonic Knights, from the Codex Manesse, early 14th century.

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