The Lost Fort
My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times
Lithuanian History: Troublesome Cousins - Jogaila Algirdaitis and Vytautas Kęstutaitis
I mentioned the union of Poland and Lithuania under Władysław Jagiełło of Poland, formerly Jogaila of Lithuania, only briefly in my post about the history of Gdańsk. Of course, the process, and the years leading up to it, did not go as smoothly as such a brief mention may suggest. When I read up on the details, I got interested in this little piece of history, not the least because the crusades against the still pagan Lithuanians involved some noblemen from England, among them the future Henry IV. I'm preparing a post about his adventures, so this essay serves to present the historical background.
Map (copyright: Wikipedia Commons)
The map above shows the countries in north-eastern Europe in the 14th century. The borders are not exactly the same as today, but it gives a good overview: Livonia and Courland cover what are basically present day Latvia and Estonia, Baltic lands then held by the Teutonic Knights. Poland today encompasses Prussia - except for the Kaliningrad Oblast - and Silesia (the latter was part of Bohemia in the 14th century), as well as part of Pomerania. The other part of Pomerania is now the German county of Vorpommern. Contested Samogitia today is Lithuanian. To the east, Lithuania's borders stretched far into what is now Belarus and Ukraine; at its largest expanse, towns like Kiev and Smolensk belonged to the grand duchy, while Lviv/Lemberg, part of former Halych-Volhynia, was Polish.
Those had been part of the Kievan Rus and came under dominion of the Golden Horde in the 1240ies. By the mid 1300ies, the Tatar grip had lessened, and some of the Ruthenian dukes prefered Lithuanian suzerainity. There were a few conquests, but most of the gains in the east were made by marriages (1).
Lithuania proper was a country of vast forests and swamps, difficult to penetrate for the mounted Teutonic Knights, or the horse archers of the Golden Horde who never ventured that far. The grand duchy of Lithuania developed during the 13th century from a bunch of feuding Baltic tribes. The pressure of the raids by the Teutonic Knights may in fact have added to this development. By the time of Gediminas (ca. 1275 - Dec. 1341), a dynasty of local rulers, mostly members of the extended family, governed the Lithuanian commonwealth - to use a modern word for the Mediaeval conglomerate of duchies of different people and religions - under the supreme rule of the Grand Duke. Surprisingly, the system worked under Gediminas as well as his sons. It may have helped that the ongoing expansion offered the chance for younger sons and cousins to gain some land.
Lithuanian rulers used the Ruthenian written language (Lithuanian was no written language at the time) and government structures which were better developed than their own. With the Ruthenian lands came the Orthodox religion, but the Lithuanians remained pagans. The princes sometimes used the promise of conversion to the Catholic faith in their dealings with the Catholic Order of the Teutonic Knights and western rulers (2, though. Once, Gediminas even played the Pope against the Teutonic Knights (and married his daughter to the crown prince of Poland, Casimir III). Intermarriage between the ruling Lithuanian and Ruthenian elites became frequent, and some Lithuanian nobles accepted Orthodox baptism.
Trakai Castle, one of Vytautas' seats
After Gediminas' death, two of his sons ruled jointly (after they had ousted the obviously incompetent brother who had inherited Vilnius): Algirdas (ca. 1296 - May 1377) and Kęstutis (ca. 1297 - Aug. 1382). Algirdas inherited the duchy and town of Vilnius and was responsible for the defense - and possible expansion - of the eastern Ruthenian duchies and dealing with the Golden Horde. He already had inherited Vitebsk (today in Belarus) from his first wife and had ties to Tver in Russia by his second wife, Uliana of Tver.
Kęstutis (who was married to Birute of Samogitia) held the duchy and castle of Trakai; his responsibility lay in the west, the dealings with Poland and Hungary, and the fight against the Teutonic Order. The latter included an adventure when Kęstutis, held in honourable captivity in Małbork Castle, escaped by climbing up a chimney, snatching a white cloak with the black cross and galloping off on the grand master's own horse, a feat he accomplished at the age of 60something.
Algirdas designed Jogaila (ca. 1350 - 1434), the eldest son of his second marriage, as heir; Kęstutis his son Vytautas (ca. 1350 - 1430). Both youths seemed to have gotten along well as boys, but when Algirdas died in 1377, the precarious power balance broke. The eldest son from Algirdas' first marriage, Andrej of Polotsk (today in Belarus), who had accepted Orthodox baptism, rose against Jogaila. Moreover, Kęstutis wanted to become sole Grand Duke and not rule jointly with his nephew.
Małbork Castle, the main gate
Jogaila sent his younger brother Skirgaila to take Polotsk. Andrej fled to Moscow where he forged an alliance with the Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy and the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights, who attacked Samogitia and threatened Vilnius. Kęstutis had no choice but to make a truce with the Teutonic Knights and his nephew (Sept. 1379). What followed was a game of double dealing diplomacy that would not be misplaced in A Song of Ice and Fire. In February 1380, Jogaila made a separate truce with the Order that protected his own possessions, but not the lands held by Kęstutis, and put an end to the Order supporting Andrej of Polotsk who was still sulking in Moscow. Three months later, Jogaila and the Grand Master Winrich of Kniprode signed the Treaty of Dovydiškės which went a step further, stating that Jogaila would not interfere if the Teutonic Knights attacked Kęstutis or his children.
The treaty may have served to keep Jogaila's back free in dealing with both his half-brother Andrej and the rebellious inhabitants of Polotsk who had driven Skirgaila out, but it could also be seen as a step towards opening the country to Catholicism and bringing Lithuania into the fold of European kingdoms - something 80 year old Kęstutis was firmly set against.
Meanwhile, Kęstutis had received a warning about the Dovydiškės treaty (3). While Jogaila was busy sorting things in Polotsk, Kęstutis took Vilnius and the title of Grand Duke. Jogaila was taken prisoner on his way back to Vilnius and had to pledge loyalty to his uncle. He was given the patrimonies of Vitebsk and Kreva.
Małbork Castle, decorated arcades in the inner bailey
But Jogaila wasn't the man to dangle his legs in Vitebsk for long. In June 1382, while his uncle was away on business in Novgorod and his cousin Vytautas enjyoing his rule in Trakai, Jogaila retook Vilnius and the throne, welcomed by the merchants who didn't like Kęstutis' politics that harmed the trade with Livonia. Upon hearing the news, Vytautas fled to Samogitia. He and Kęstutis gathered an army and marched towards Trakai.
The armies of Kęstutis and the alliance of Jogaila's troops, supported by a contingent of Teutonic Knights, met near Trakai in August 1382. Both sides agreed to negotiations, but when Kęstutis and Vytautas arrived in Jogaila's camp, he took them captive and sent them to Kreva Castle; the Samogitian army disbanded. A few days later, Kęstutis was found dead (4). Vytautas managed to escape a few months later by disguising as his wife, who had been allowed to visit him. He eventually fled to his former enemies, the Teutonic Knights.
The Teutonic Order was none too keen on having a strong grand duke in Jogaila, and tried to inflict such harsh terms on him if he wanted to continue the truce (for example, he was not allowed to start any war without the Order's permission, which would have made it impossible to deal with Andrej of Polotsk) that he refused to ratify the Treaty of Dubysa. So the Order was not unhappy to make a peace deal with Vytautas instead, playing the cousins against each other. Vytautas promised to become a vassal of the Order and cede Samogitia to them - harsh terms as well, those.
The Grand Master's Palace
Jogaila understood that he needed to bring his country into the fold of the Christian states in order for Lithuania to survive. An alliance with the duchy of Moscow and marriage to a Moskovitian princess was discussed, but accepting the Orthodox faith would have opened the door to the claims of his elder half-brothers and threaten a dominance of the Ruthenian parts of the duchy. A Catholic conversion on the other side, would pull the teeth of the Teutonic Knights who called their ongoing raids into Lithuanian territory a crusade against heathens, and give the Catholic-to-be part of the nobility and populace an identity of their own.
Thus the interest of several Polish nobles to consider Jogaila as husband for their queen Jadwiga (Hedwig) came at the right moment. The Poles needed a king with a strong backing to hold out against the other strong dynasties like the Luxemburgians in Bohemia and the Angevins in Hungary. A local Piast prince with little actual power would not do, and certainly not that Hapsburg boy Jadwiga had been betrothed to (5).
Jogaila contacted his cousin Vytautas in secret and offered him a vague promise of returning Trakai to him once Skirgaila had established himself in Polotsk. In July 1384, Vytautas abandoned the Teutonic Knights, burning two of their castles on the way back home, and a month later he put his name on the Treaty of Krevo. In 1386, Jogaila, now baptised Władysław Jagiełło, was crowned King of Poland.
The summer refectory
Jagiełło now spent most of his time in Poland. Andrej promptly saw another chance in gaining Polotsk, or even the throne of Lithuania. But Jagiełło marched with an army to meet him faster than Andrej thought possible; moreover Vytautas cooperated for a change. Andrej was defeated and brought to Poland in chains. But Jagiełło needed a trusted man to rule Lithuania for him. The one he trusted best was his brother Skirgaila, so Jagiełło appointed him regent - which included the possession of Vilnius and Trakai (besides Polotsk). That irked Vytautas who had been promised Trakai. He wasn't content with the provinces Jagiełło offered him in recompensation.
Skirgaila may have been an apt administrator, but he failed to gain the acceptance of the populace in Vilnius as well (the same problem he had in Polotsk). Vytautas, who must have had a great deal of charisma, received clandestine support, but he failed to take Vilnius and had to flee Lithuania once more. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights looked a bit askance at him, not having forgotten his earlier defection and the destroyed castles. He demanded pretty much all of Vytautas' extended family as hostages and Samogitia as price, should they aid Vytautas again.
Technically, Lithuania was now a Christian country, a fact that would have made it impossible for the Teutonic Knights to call the war a crusade. But they argued that the baptism of Jogaila (and Vytautas, but that little inconvenience was conveniently overlooked) and other nobles was a ruse, that the people still practiced pagan rituals, and that a newfound monastery somewhere had been attacked. So this was still considered a crusade and advertised as such in Europe. One of those to follow the call was Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV of England.
The Teutonic Knights with their allies, followers of Vytautas from Lithuania and Ruthenia, as well as the visiting guest knights, laid siege to Vilnius in September 1390, but failed to take the town. Only the outer castle was destroyed. Disease broke out in the besieger's camp, supplies ran out and the autumn rains set in, therefore the siege was lifted after five weeks.
But Jagiełło had to consolidate his power in Poland which was not uncontested until he produced an heir (6), and therefore wanted a solution to the Lithuanian problem. He contacted Vytautas in secret through his envoy, Henry of Masovia, the bishop of Płosk. Vytautas was offered to become Grand Duke of Lithuania while Jagiełło would be Supreme Duke. That made Vytautas his cousin's vassal, but with considerable power of his own.
Vytautas had to tread carefully since the grand master of the Order, Konrad of Wallenrode, did not really trust him. But Vytautas managed to get most of the members of his family who stood in as hostages to safe places by summer 1392. He had been given the - hastily erected - timber castle of Ritterswerder on an island in the Nemen (Memel) river as residence. Since the negotiations took place in secret, the Teutonic Knights must have been rather surprised to find the burnt ruins of the castle one morning, and Vytautas and his retainers gone, leaving behind a trail of some more destroyed fortresses - quite a habit of his by that time.
Jagiełło and Vytautas (who had been baptized Vitold Alexander; 7) signed the Ostrów Agreement in summer 1392. Vytautas ruled Lithuania as Grand Duke for 38 years and henceforth remained at peace with his cousin. The quarrels with the Teutonic Knights over the possession of Samogitia did not end in 1392, though. But the Order now faced two powerful men and countries acting together. The alliance would eventually lead to the the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.
The Teutonic Knights at war, 19th century fresco in Małbork Castle
1) That's a rather simplified summary, of course, but I don't want to trouble the readers with yet another set of unfamiliar names and strange places. One of the duchies that rose out of the Kievan Rus after the disintegration of the Golden Horde was the Grand Duchy of Moscow. It would clash with the Polish-Lithuanian Union more than once.
2) Playing the Catholic against the Orthodox faith was a game that worked pretty well, since the Catholics considered the Orthodox to be incorrigible apostates who refused to acknowlegde the supreme authority of the pope in Rome, while the Orthodox deemed the Catholics to be a miserable bunch of heretics because they had added the word filioque to the Nicaean Creed (thus claiming that the Holy Spirit descended through father and son).
3) The most likely candidate to tattle the tale to Vytautas was Günther von Hohenstein (yes, a member of that family), the Komtur of Brandenburg, who was the godfather of Kęstutis' daughter Danuta Anna who had married Duke Janusz of Masovia.
4) As usual in such a case, there were rumours that Jogaila had a hand in his uncle's death, but it was never proven. Suicide or simply death of old age - he was in his 80ies, after all - are possible scenarios as well. He got a splendid pagan funeral, incremated on a pyre together with his favourite horse and dogs, and even a slave or two.
5) Wilhelm of Hapsburg slunk back to Austria, refusing the recompensation money and muttering curses about that 'Lithuanian Saracen'. Young Jadwiga soon recovered from the shock of having to marry an man almost three times her age instead of her childhood friend, and took her part in ruling Poland.
6) His marriage with Jadwiga would not produce any living offspring. He married three more times and had several sons with the last wife, Sophia of Halshany, daughter of Ivan Olshansky, a close friend and brother-in-law of Vytautas.
7) He used his Christian names only in official documents.
Almut Bues: Die Jagiellonen. Herrscher zwischen Ostsee und Adria; Kohlhammer-Urban, Stuttgart 2010
Robert Frost: The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, vol. 1, The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union 1385-1569; Oxford 2015, paperback ed. 2018
Jürgen Sarnowsky: Der Deutsche Orden, München 2007
William Urban: The Teutonic Knights. A Military History, 2003; reprint by Frontline Publ. 2018
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
This blog is non-commercial.
All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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