Adventures of a Future King - Henry Bolingbroke and the Siege of Vilnius 1390
When I was researching the Teutonic Knights and the forging of the union between Władysław Jagiełło of Poland and Vytautas of Lithuania (see this post), I came across a paragraph mentioning that one of the participants in the siege of Vilnius in 1390 was Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV of England, who had joined the Teutonic Knights with a number of household knights and archers. That intrigued me and I hunted down more information about Henry's adventures in Lithuania. I'm sure my British readers will be interested in that probably little known piece of history.
Małbork Castle, column capital with carved knights
A short biography of King Henry IV will suffice here (1). Henry IV, also known as Henry Bolingbroke after his place of birth, and Henry of Derby (he held the honorary title Earl of Derby since 1374), was born on April 15, 1367. His father was John of Gaunt, a younger son of King Edward III; his mother was Blanche, heiress of Lancaster (and in turn descended from Henry III; 2). In 1380, Henry married Mary de Bohun, daughter of Humphrey de Bohun, 7th Earl of Hereford.
Henry's relationship with his cousin, King Richard II, was a troubled one. John auf Gaunt, who had always supported Richard, went to in Span 1386, trying to claim the throne of Castile by jure uxoris of his second wife, Constance of Castile. At the same time Henry joined the Lords Appellant, a group of barons who wanted to curtail King Richard's power and get rid of some royal favourites. But Henry, together with a small group, disagreed with some of the executions. Moreover, his father returned from Spain in 1389, without a crown, but a fat purse full of gold as recompensation, and John slowly worked to restore Richard to power.
Small wonder that Henry didn't feel particularly at home at court and in England at that time. He went on traveling and jousting, and in 1390, he partook in a crusade in Lithuania, which I will detail below.
King Richard II finally was in a position - with the help of John of Gaunt - to reclaim power and deal with the Lords Appellant. At that time, Henry and the Earl of Mowbray, stood with the king rather than the Appellants, but nevertheless managed to fall out with each other and with Richard (3). Henry and Mowbray were condemned to exile.
In Feburary 1399, John of Gaunt died. Richard extended Henry's exile sentence for life and snatched his heritage, including the rich Lancaster lands. Well, if he thought Henry would meekly dangle his legs in Paris, he was much mistaken. Henry made contact with other exiles and disgruntled lords in England and gathered an army. When Richard was off in Ireland, they landed in Yorkshire, gaining still more support on their way. Richard returned, but half of his army deserted to Henry, he himself was captured, forced to abdicate and brought to Pontefract Castle where he joined the club of Important Captives Who Mysteriously Died in Prison (4). Henry was crowned King of England on October 13, 1399.
But Henry had to face his share of rebellions in turn. Only a few months after his ascension to the throne, he had to deal with a group of followers of the deposed Richard II in the so-called Epiphany Rising which he successfully subdued. The Welsh rose under Owain Glyn Dŵr, and the Percys of Northumberland, long time his supporters, felt slighted on promises made and turned against Henry. Their famed scion Henry Percy, nicknamed Harry Hotspur, died at the battle of Shrewsbury in July 1403. Two years later, the Percys joined the rebellion of Archbishop Richard Scrope.
Henry IV managed to deal with those rebellions, both internal and external. But his health detoriated; he suffered from a severe skin condition many of his contemporaries thought to have been leprosy, and acute bouts of another, rather mysterious, illness (5). Henry died on March 20, 1413.
The Keep of Warkworth Castle -
a Percy stronghold besieged by King Henry IV in 1405
Nowadays, Lithuania seems to be a more exotic travel destination than Thailand, but it was different in the high Middle Ages. Ever since the war against a group of Slavic pagan tribes east of the Elbe river was acknowleged as full fledged 'Wendish Crusade' with all the spiritual benefits in 1147, crusades against the tribes along the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea became popular. Henry Bolingbroke was not the only English knight to join in a so-called reyse. Henry's maternal grandfather, Henry of Grosmont, 1st Duke of Lancaster, had fought in Prussia in 1352, his father-in-law Humphrey de Bohun in 1351 and 1362, and Henry 'Hotspur' Percy in 1383 (to name just some examples). Chaucer mentions those crusades in his Canterbury Tales.
After the fall of Acre in 1291, which marked the end of the crusades in the Holy Land, the northern crusades increased in attraction. The Teutonic Knights, founded in 1128 along the establishment of other orders like the Templars and Knights Hospitaller to protect pilgrims in the Holy Land, expanded their interest north-east already in the 1230ies. Their northern branch soon merged with the Brothers of the Sword. In 1309, the Teutonic Knights established their main base at Małbork Castle and continued to expand their power. One of the main targets were the still pagan Baltic tribes in Lithuania, Samogitia, and Livonia.
When the Lithuanian princes Jogaila (who became King of Poland as Władysław Jagiełło) and Vytautas were baptised in 1386, the people of Lithuania were to follow the conversion; therefore the war against Lithuania could not really be called a crusade any longer. But the cousins fought each other, and the Teutonic Knights, who supported Vytautas, proclaimed that most of the people were still pagan and the war could indeed be called a crusade, thank you very much.
I doubt that the young men who joined the call to arms in 1390 understood all the intricacies of Lithuanian and Polish politics, the shifting alliances and convoluted family relations, and thus were unaware that they basically fought in an internecine war against the ruler - Jogaila / Jagiełło - who had incited the conversion of Lithuania.
Mediaeval transport - the reconstructed cog Wissemara
Originally, Henry wanted to join in a military expedition against the Barbary pirates in Tunisia (6), but King Charles IV of France refused to grant him a safe conduct. So Henry chartered two ships (7) under the captains Hermann and Hankyn of Gdańsk and got them equipped with all sorts of foodstuffs for a cruise, including exotic spices like ginger, nutmeg, saffron and pepper, and fruits like dried dates, raisins and figs. He also took live chickens with him and a cow, plus large quantities of ale and wine (8). And his fine silver cutlery. Well, his father provided a generous amount of money for the expedition and the sea journey would take about three weeks, so why go nibble on hardtack if you could get spiced pastries instead.
Henry's entourage included two dozen knights and squires, his Derby herald, his standard-bearer, his chamberlain, his chaplain, his chief falconer, six minstrels, and a troop of longbow archers as well as a few gunners. His household consisted of 70 to 80 men and about two dozen horses. He also would recruit more men on his way from Gdańsk to Vilnius (9).
The ships left the harbour of Boston (the one in the UK) on July 19 and arrived at Rixhöft near Gdańsk on August 8 where Henry sent a messenger to the marshal of the Teutonic Knights, Engelhard Rabe. While waiting for the messenger's return in Gdańsk, Henry organised an impromptu jousting bout, one of his favourite pastimes.
Upon learning that the marshal was already on the way to Vilnius, Henry and his men chased after him along the coast, through Elbląng (Elbing) and Kaliningrad (Königsberg). From there they turned into the forests and swamps of Samogitia, refered to as 'le Wyldrenesse' in some Medieaval chronicles. Henry had to acquire additional draft horses for the wagons which got stuck in the boggy ground.
Coast of the Curonian Spit -
likely the way Henry took to reach Kaliningrad
He finally met with Marshal Rabe and Prince Vytautas at Ragnit at the Nemunas (Memel) river on August 22. They learned that the army of Skirgaila (Jogaila's regent in Lithuania) camped a few miles off Kaunas on the other side of the river, so the the Teutonic Knights, together with Henry's knights and archers, rode off to meet them. It is not entirely clear how the battle proceeded, except that Henry's archers covered the knights with their arrows as they attacked Skirgaila's host. The question is whether they crossed the river first, likely out of sight of Skirgaila, and continued on the other shore of the Nemunas, or whether they crossed the river under cover of the archers.
The fight was a severe one, it seems. One of Henry's knights, Sir John Loudham, was killed, but the host consisting of Teutonic Knights, Vytautas' warriors, and Henry with his men managed to capture several of the inimical leaders - three Russian 'dukes', the sources say, and a dozen other lords (boyars). Three or four more 'dukes' were killed, together with some 300 men. It was a victory, for sure, though the accounts that made it to England via the story of an eyewitness may likely have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, Henry of Bolingbroke, celebrated champion of tournaments, will have fought bravely, and his longbowmen were a decisive factor in the outcome of the battle.
Lakes and forests, a Baltic landscape
Skirgaila fled to Vilnius. Henry sent Loudham's body back to Kaliningrad for burial, and the army slogged through the mud in pursuit of Skirgaila. At Vilnius, they were joined by a company from the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order.
Vilnius at the time was a town of timber buildings surrounded by earthen walls, but protected by a strong castle (10) and some outlying forts. In May 1390, Jagiełło gave the position of starosta and the command of the Vilnius garrison to his Polish vice-chancellor Clemens Moskorzew. That act was not intended to replace Skirgaila as regent, but it seemed to have caused bad blood nevertheless. The starosts of the Polish provinces held considerable power, and some Lithuanian nobles thought that Jagiełło tried to incorporate their country into the Polish realm.
The first attack on the outer fort, the Crooked Castle, took place on September 4. The valiant attacks of the English knights and archers decided the capture of the castle, and it was an English squire who planted a flag bearing the cross of St.George - symbol of Henry and the Teutonic Order alike - on the parapet. The fight must have been a fierce one: Jagiełło's brother Karigaila fell, as did one of Vytautas' brothers, Tautvilas
But the other two castles that protected the town withstood the siege. The besiegers probably couldn't bring heavy engines like trebuchets through the mud and had to work with attacks by the longbowmen and gunners, and scaling ladders. There were several more attempts to break the walls. During one of those, two of Henry's men, Thomas Rempston and John Clifton, were captured, while the besiegers captured some Lithuanian and Russian nobles and citizens of Vilnius in turn.
But autumn came and with it heavy rains that turned the muddy ground even muddier. Henry and his entourage had eaten all the fancy foods - maybe they should better have brought some hardtack - and had to rely on Vytautas for supplies. Diseases broke out. The gunpowder got wet. After a month the once splendid, but now rather bedraggled host had enough. The siege of Vilnius was lifted on October 7; two weeks later the army was back in Kaliningrad.
Clemens Morkorzew resigned his position as starosta as soon as he saw the back end of the army. He too, had enough of the rain and of the constant quarrels with Skirgaila. Jagiełło would find it difficult to replace him with another of his reliable Polish officials; the job was not high on anyone's wish list. In 1392, Jagiełło would make his final peace with Vytautas. The unpopular Skirgaila was foisted off to govern some Ruthenian duchy.
Gdańsk, closeup of the gate to the Artus Court -
the facade is from a later time, but the court itself existed when Henry stayed in Gdańsk
Henry stayed at Kaliningrad (Königsberg) until the beginning of February 1391. For one, the autumn gales would have made the journey back home difficult. Second, he needed time to negotiate the freedom of his captured men. He sent the Derby herald to Jagiełło in Krakow and had his father John of Gaunt write to the Polish king as well. And third, he may have hoped for a winter reyse to Vilnius once the swamps got frozen and could be crossed.
Meanwhile Henry spent his time partying with the Prussian and pro-Vytautas Lithuanian nobility and the citizens of the town - he threw an extra one when he learned that he had become father for the fourth time (in November). He listened to the music of his six minstrels. He went hunting with Marshal Rabe. He wrote letters back home. He gave alms to the poor. He gambled and lost. He ate lots of fine food and drank good wine. He spent a fair amount of money on fur cloaks and other finery. In short, he had a pretty good time far away from daddy, King Richard II, and court intrigues.
Henry had captured some women and boys during the crusade whom he now had baptized. He provided the women with new clothes and found places for them to stay. The boys were educated in his own household. Two of them - John Ralph and Ingelard of Prussia - would accompany him back to England. At some point his captured men got released, but there would not be any winter crusade, so Henry moved to Gdańsk in early Feburary.
Gdańsk, St.Mary's Church, interior - Henry attended services there
Henry lived pretty much in the same style of parties and hunting in Gdańsk as he had in Kaliningrad. He lodged at the house of one Klaus Gottesknecht (meaning 'God's Servant') while some of his retinue stayed at the bishop's house in town. Besides having parties and going on the hunt, Henry gave more alms to the poor and provided his servants with warm cloaks. He also made a minor pilgrimage to some important Polish churches during the Holy Week.
There was only one setback during those months: Henry fell gravely ill in February and was tended by the grand master's own physician. The illness is not specified in the sources and even the exact date is unclear.
At the end of March 1391, Henry left Gdańsk with a lot of presents, among them a fine hawk and three young bears he got from Conrad of Wallenrode, the grand master of the Teutonic Order. Four weeks later, the ships arrived at Kingston-upon-Hull, and on May 13, Henry was back with his family in Bolingbroke. There is no account about the fate of the bears, but the minstrels brought some new songs with them. :-)
On the military side, the expedition was a moderate success at best, but it increased Henry's reputation as warrior and crusader. Not only did all that show with heralds and gold-embroidered clothes, the parties and largesse, serve to present a representative of England in the best possible way, including the supremacy of the longbow archers; Henry's victories at the Nemunas and the conquest of the Crooked Castle were considered English victories at home. Richard II, himself not much of a warrior, was probably not happy about his young cousin's fame.
Henry spent the next fifteen months in England, mostly jousting and showing off. His wardrobe would make any Influencer girl jealous, and got his tailors and cloth merchants rich. But this was an important aspect of the life of a Mediaeval nobleman of wealth, and wealth Henry surely had (or rather, his father did). He stayed away from court, but one can imagine that his traveling around in England, jousting and hunting, included a number of meetings with like-minded young noblemen; a sort of networking.
The Royal Palace in the Hradčany in Prague -
where Henry stayed as guest of King Wenceslas on his way to Jerusalem
In summer 1392, Henry wanted to go on another reyse in Lithuania. He set off for Gdańsk and Kaliningrad with some 250 men. But in Kaliningrad - which he reached on September 2 - he learned that peace negotiations were going on between Vytautas and Jagiełło and that there would be no crusade this year.
So Henry sent the archers back home and changed his plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem instead. He asked his father to send some money to a bank in Venice, and set off with an entourage of about fifty men. They traveled via Prague, where they were guests of King Wenceslas of Bohemia for several days, and Hungary to Venice. The group then continued across the Mediterranean to Rhodes and Jaffa, and arrived in Jerusalem in January 1393. Henry spent ten days in the Holy City, visiting the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives. They were back in Jaffa on February 6. They contined to Venice and from there to Milan, across the Julian Alpes and Savoy, through Burgundy to Paris and on to Calais (looks like Henry got a safe conduct this time). Henry and his entourage crossed the Channel to Dover on July 5, 1993.
That dry itinerary does not show the grand way Henry and his entourage traveled. He was preceeded by a herald and a trumpeter, announcing his arrival in every city and town. Henry rode his favourite white courser, accompagnied by his standard-bearer, a score of mounted knights and squires, his chamberlain and his chaplain, his falconer, minstrels ... The baggage waggons trundled in tow. The men were resplendent with expensive brocades, silks and furs, sparkling with gold embroideries and jewels - it must have been quite the sight. Despite the show, the cortège managed to cover an average of 15 to 20 miles per day.
Wherever Henry stayed longer than a night, he had his arms painted on his lodgings (he already did that in Gdańsk). Of course, he met with a number of rulers, like King Wenceslas of Bohemia, King Sigismund of Hungaria, Albrecht of Hapsburg Duke of Austria, the Duke of Milan, the Duke of Burgundy, the grand master of the Knights Hospitaller, members of the Senate of Venice (to name just a few) as well as important merchants and bankers in Venice and Lombardy.
Henry also received gifts, including exotic animals like a leopard (who got his own cabin on the way back to Venice). But more important was the formation of a tight-knit circle of loyal knights who would stand with Henry in the years to come. Moreover, he added the image of a pious pilgrim to that of a warrior and crusader - a Mediaeval public campaign.
Sunset on the Baltic Sea - Henry may have seen some of those
1) His taking the throne from Richard II is a complicated topic that deserves a more detailed post.
2) His father was Henry Grosmont, son of Henry, 3rd earl of Lancaster. Henry in turn was the son of Thomas of Lancaster who is best known for his opposition against King Edward II. Thomas was a son of Edmund 'Crouchback', first earl of Lancaster, who was the second son of King Henry III and Eleanor of Provence. Got it sorted? *grin*
3) The events of 1397/98 were a mess that needs to be sorted out in another post.
4) He died, it is said, of starvation. The discussion about 'was it suicide, or murder, and what did Henry know?' still goes on. After the Epiphany Rising, Henry would have had a reason to prefer Richard dead instead of a rallying figure for another set of disgruntled barons.
5) The skin condition may have been psoriasis or a side effect of syphilis. The other illness is likely cardiac related or - less likely, imho - a form of epilepsy due to a head trauma or encephalitis (neither of that is confirmed in the sources, though).
6) A Franco-Genoese expedition led by Duke Louis II of Bourbon, with the aim to capture the harbour town of Mahdia in Tunisia, a stronghold of the pirates. The siege ended in an armistice, some recompensation money paid, and a few less pirate attacks on Genoese trade ships.
7) Mortimer mentions one ship, while Given-Wilson mentions two and their captains. I think two ships is more realistic considering the size of Henry's entourage (I've been on a cog myself and can sort of judge how many horses and men would fit in).
8) Ian Mortimer gives a detailed list of the items loaded, which he collected from household rolls and other sources (which makes it the more surprising he only mentions one ship).
9) The 300 archers Frost mentions are an exaggeration made by Henry himself in a conversation many years after the event about his 'gadling days'.
10) I couldn't find out anything about the structure of the castle at the time. Vytautas built a brick tower in 1409, so maybe the castle was a brick construction as well. A timber building might not have withstood a four weeks siege so well.
11) They conquered the castle, not the town of Vilnius, as Mortimer has it. The reports that reached England sounded as if the town had been conquered, though.
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
Christ Given-Wilson: Henry IV (Yale English Monarchs); London 2016
Ian Mortimer: The Fears of Henry IV. The Life of England's Self-Made King; London 2008
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, and central / eastern 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.
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- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm 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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