History & Analysis

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)

In 1147 Pope Eugenius III declared a crusade against the pagans of the Eastern Baltic, the first papal call to holy war not explicitly aimed at reclaiming Christian territories from Muslim rule. Instead, Eugenius’ decree gave the Latin Christians of Northern Germany and Scandinavia mandate to aggressively expand their borders into the lands of the Wendish Slavs on the northern frontier of Christendom. It would become a mandate with a long afterlife – once the northern borders of Christendom were opened to the crusading ideal, they remained open for three centuries. In the Slavic lands of North-Eastern Europe, the Scandinavian kingdoms and northern states of the Holy Roman Empire had seen opportunity for political and economic expansion; any intent Rome may have had in establishing the Northern Crusades as a vehicle to win souls to Latin Christianity was subordinated to regional politics.

The 1147 campaign against the Wends opened the first of four Latin Christian theatres of operation on the Baltic.  After the Wends, the crusaders turned first to the territories of the Livonian and Estonian pagans, and subsequently campaigned against each the Prussians and the Lithuanians. The veneer of holy war that accompanied the Northern Crusades could not disguise the clearly political motivations of the campaigns – the Baltic frontier was characterised by shifting alliances, with religious ideals rapidly giving way to territorial interests.  This tension between religious and political ideal facilitated the growth of innovations unique to the north: aggressive economic expansion, Christian colonisation, and coercive conversion.  Such innovation typified the northern frontier of Christendom and, as the ideologies of the participants evolved, the Northern Crusades moved inexorably away from the ideals of Eugenius’ call for holy war.

With that broad (and slightly cynical) introduction to three-hundred years of warfare on the Baltic shore out of the way, I am going to turn to the Wendish Crusade as the focus of this article – over the coming months will produce separate articles on the other three theatres of the Northern Crusades.


Map of the Wendish Crusade, taken from Eric Christiansen’s ‘The Northern Crusades.’ The campaigning centred on the modern Baltic coast of Germany, extending into north-west Poland.

The ambiguity between religious and temporal objectives was evident from the outset in the Wendish Crusade, though it is important to recognise that this does not mean that religious and political authority were diametrically opposed.  Secular political leaders of the crusading period must be distinguished from the modern concept of secular government independent of religious authority: church and state were inextricably entwined.  Nonetheless, there were conflicting motives in the expansion of Latin Christendom into the Wendish lands to the east of Saxony.  In 1147 Pope Eugenius and the charismatic Bernard of Clairvaux were preaching a crusade to Outremer after the fall of the crusader state of Edessa.  Arriving in Frankfurt on 13 March 1147, Bernard did not find an aristocracy eager to head east, but met with a Saxon nobility who were proposing holy war against the Slavic pagans on their borders. Swayed by their arguments, Bernard used his legatine authority to declare a crusade against the Wends, stating:

[T]hat at the council of the king, bishops, and princes who had come together in Frankfurt, the might of the Christians was armed against [the pagans], and that for the complete wiping out or, at any rate, the conversion of these peoples, they have put on the cross, the sign of our salvation.

Bernard’s letter casts the campaign to convert the pagan Wends in the crusading mould. By putting on the cross, the nobles were committing to a holy war against these ‘wicked pagan sons’ that would be a part of ‘the whole of Israel finding salvation.’  Such anti-pagan polemic departed from the declarations accompanying the crusades to Iberia and the east; it encouraged coercive conversion, an uncanonical innovation, though one that could be validated in the light of settlements that had been established in Wendish territory by Emperor Otto I in 937. These settlements had long reverted to paganism, yet it was useful to the legitimacy of the crusade to be able to paint the Slavs as apostates. This reflects the ideological foundation of the wider crusading movement: any war declared by Christendom must be justifiable as righteous and divinely inspired.   By grounding the Wendish crusade in the reclamation of lands and souls for Christendom, Bernard provided a rationale for war.  Eugenius’ subsequent issuing of the papal bull providing crusader indulgences to the northern campaign, sealed the fate of the Wends.

The Saxon nobles’ calls for crusade against the Wends were not new.  Adam of Bremen recounts an appeal for the conversion of the pagans in the mid-eleventh century and, in 1108, a Flemish clerk issued an exhortation to war against the Wends. The latter gives clear expression to the conflict of religious and political interest that faced crusaders in the Baltic States, and foreshadows the colonisation that accompanied conquest:

These gentiles are most wicked, but their land is the best, rich in meat, honey, corn and birds; and if it were well cultivated none could be compared to it for the wealth of its produce … And so, most renowned Saxons, French, Lorrainers and Flemings and conquerors of the world, this is an occasion for you to save your souls and, if you wish it, acquire the best land in which to live.

If taken at face value, this letter streamlines political aspects of the holy war – religious concerns were merely a facade behind which the frontier aristocracy of the Empire operated a cynical land grab – what has been termed a process of ‘Germanisation.’ Yet this perspective limits the broader understanding of the crusading protagonists and settlers and comes at the cost of the greater and more complicated picture of interaction between Latin Christians, pagan Slavs, and Orthodox Russians in the Baltic with its accompanying religious tensions. Though undoubtedly a process of ‘Germanisation’ did occur, the unifying nature of Christendom and the Roman Church was more decisive in expanding the Baltic frontier than any nascent recognition of a common German identity.

While the German states took a leading role in the Baltic, the Northern Crusades were never purely German campaigns.  Papal bulls declaring crusade drew men from around Christendom, and the Northern Crusades drew in men from France, Italy, England and the Rhineland. Notably, the Scandinavian kingdoms were constant partners (and rivals) of the Germans in the Baltic campaigns and, in the Wendish Crusades, the Danes vied with the Germans for secular and ecclesiastical influence, both within the conflicts and the subsequent administration of conquered territories.  Indeed, toward the end of the Wendish Crusade it was the Danes who were politically ascendant, while the Germans dominated ecclesiastical authority.

So it was that in 1147, as crusaders gathered in response to Eugenius’ call to arms, the Saxons and the Danes that responded in the greatest numbers.  Their dominance of the crusade is reflected in two key chronicles: Chronica Slavorum by the Saxon Helmold of Bosau and Gesta Danorum by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus.  Both wrote their accounts toward the end of the Wendish Crusade (post 1170) and thus wrote with the influence of forty years of crusading rhetoric and in knowledge of the outcomes of events they were describing.  Idealistic in nature, these chronicles declare the benefits of Christian expansion to both their homelands and the conquered Slavs. Yet neither chronicle is restricted to the crusade, and both recount the political background leading to their leaders’ involvement in the endeavour. As such, the historiography of the Wendish Crusade, and its paradoxical religious and political motives, are embedded in the political landscape of Denmark and Saxony prior to 1147.

Both Helmold and Saxo show overt concern with the conversion of the Baltic pagans.  For Helmold this is foremost in his narrative and, when he identifies secular politicisation, he is damning of the perpetrators.  While he does reserve some praise for the Saxon Duke, Henry the Lion, he is derisive of the Danish King Waldemar I and subordinates him to Henry.  Here Saxo’s Gesta Danorum sheds some light. Civil war consumed Danish resources in the early years of the Wendish Crusade and effective Danish involvement in the crusade did not occur until 1157.   Saxo characterises Danish territorial expansion in the Baltic as a sign of regeneration and depicts Waldemar as the restorer of Denmark’s glories.  Undoubtedly Waldemar saw the crusades as an opportunity to unite Denmark through external warfare, annex territory, and exact revenge for raids perpetuated by the Slavs during Denmark’s political instability.  These secular aims are at odds with Helmold’s idealistic spiritual crusade, and it serves his Saxon ancestry and focus to depict such secularism as characteristic of the Danes.  Helmold wrote in the context of the internecine border warfare between Saxon and Slav, of which the crusade of 1147 and subsequent expeditions were simply a part. Both secular and religious authority saw an opportunity in the crusading fervour of the mid-twelfth century.  Soon after Otto I’s annexation of Wendish lands in the tenth century, political authority in the Empire had begun to decentralise, and the Wends had reverted to paganism as the Empire’s influence waned.  For the Saxon church, the crusade facilitated the reclamation of lost lands and souls, while for Henry it would be a chance to assert Saxon political dominance over the Slavs.

Though the Pope did not renew the bull of 1147 – the next papal bull declaring crusade in the north was in 1171 – the Baltic theatre of Christian expansion remained open throughout the period and Latin Christian aggression continued.  The campaigns of 1147 pitted Henry and a temporary alliance of the claimants to the Danish throne against the Slavic prince Niklot, and a second army under the papal legate Anselm of Havelberg against the Slavs of Pomerania.  This coalition had not only to navigate the political complexities of their own alliance, but also the extant alliances some Christian leaders had with Slavic chieftains.  The Baltic frontier was not historically impervious and border lords had made arrangements with the Slavs as necessary.  As an example, Helmold details the situation of Adolph II of Holstein at the opening of the crusade.  Aware of the force gathering against him, Niklot pressured Adolph to observe the terms of a pact between Holstein and the Slavs, and provide counsel to the Slavic prince. Adolph trod a cautious path.  Not daring to offend his fellow German princes, he declined Niklot’s proposition yet maintained a working relationship and alliance with the Slavs.  There is no evidence that Adolph joined the army under Henry that marched on Niklot’s stronghold at Dobin.

Though the siege of Dobin was ostensibly successful, with the garrison accepting baptism, the win had little long-term effect.  Danish land and sea forces suffered defeat at the hands of Niklot and his allies, and the Danish coalition splintered, returning to Denmark to continue the civil war.  The nominal submission of Niklot’s men to Henry of Saxony was little more than an expedient to appease the ideals of conversion that underpinned the crusade, and gloss over the futility of the military endeavour.  Helmold declared that the Slavs had ‘falsely received baptism’ and ‘neither respected their baptism nor kept their hands from ravaging the Danes.’  Helmold similarly decried the conduct of the crusaders, whom he implies were less than zealous in prosecuting the siege of Dobin, having laid claim to unconquered Wendish lands, peoples and incomes, rather than souls:

Is not the land we are devastating our land, and the people we are fighting our people? Why are we, then, found to be our own enemies and destroyers of our own incomes?  Does not this loss fall back on our lords?

And this acquisitional attitude of the crusading knights was not restricted to Dobin, being also evident in the actions of the legatine army who besieged the city of Stettin. Vincent of Prague’s Annales tells of the Bohemian princes that joined the Wendish Crusade who, together with contingents of Saxons and an inordinate ecclesiastic representation, targeted Slavic territories in Pomerania parallel to Henry’s campaign against Niklot.  He is damning of the motives behind a campaign could not boast even nominal success.  Upon arriving outside the walls of Stettin, the besieging force received representatives from the city, including the Latin Christian bishop. The crusaders had failed to realise that Stettin was a Latin Christian stronghold, having been converted by Otto, the missionary bishop of Bamberg, earlier in the century.  Upon conferring with representatives of the city, the leaders of the crusading army left Stettin, having gained neither lands nor souls for Christendom.  Despite Vincent’s assessment that the secular leaders of the army were more interested in land than conversion, it remained that ‘when they were not fighting on God’s behalf, a happy result would not be an easy thing to achieve.’ Crusade against a Latin Christian population was insupportable. Territorial expansion may have motivated secular lords to embark on crusade, however the religious integrity of the crusade had to be maintained.

Without papal renewal of crusading indulgences, Christian expansion into Slavic lands slowed.  A truce is recorded between Henry and Niklot following the failed campaigns of 1147, and it was a decade before Waldemar could unite the feuding factions of Denmark.  This slowing of political expansion need not imply that ecclesiastical expansion halted.  Helmold details numerous missionaries working in Wendish lands during this period and, while these accounts are idealistic, there is no reason to doubt that missionary activity continued unabated.   However, in 1157 the political dynamic of the Baltic changed.  Waldemar I defeated the rival claimants for the Danish throne, and led a united kingdom in seeking revenge for Slavic raids during Denmark’s internal strife.  Waldemar quickly forged an alliance with Henry of Saxony, paying the duke to assist him in achieving dominion over the Slavs.  From 1157 the Baltic frontier again fell into the chaos of war as Danes and Germans sought to annex Slavic lands, and enforce conversion.  In the early 1160s Waldemar and Henry united against Niklot, pursuing and killing the prince and annexing his territory.  The leaders subsequently began independent programs of colonisation and Christianisation, affecting permanent realignment of both political and ecclesiastical boundaries on the Baltic shore. Henry further changed the dynamic of politics on the Baltic shore by taking ecclesiastical authority unto himself, investing bishops over the previously pagan lands and bringing their sees under the authority of the Saxon church.  By uniting political and ecclesiastical authority, Henry was setting an interesting precedent for the future of crusading in the north.

The legacy of the Wendish Crusade is mixed. Certainly the territory was ultimately Christianised and absorbed by its neighbours. Yet I would characterise the crusade, or at least its early years, as a political, military failure with a gloss of religious success, demonstrating the tension of politics and religion characteristic of Latin Christian expansion on the Baltic.  And though I have rejected (to a degree) the notion that, within their political landscape, the crusade was merely a cynical land-grab, neither was it an altruistic evangelisation of the pagans.  Helmold of Bosau, Saxo Grammaticus, and Vincent of Prague certainly did not view the campaigns as altruistic endeavours to spread salvation.  Each in turn demonstrates the secular aspect of the frontier conflicts on the Baltic. Saxo focuses on the period after the unification of Denmark, and glories in the political successes of Waldemar, using Christian motifs to justify Danish aggression, even against Slavic Christians. Vincent and Helmold are far more conscious of a subordination of spiritual matters to secular politics, and decry the material concerns of the crusaders and lack of zeal in prosecuting war on the Slavs.

Which is probably enough on the Wendish Crusade! I will leave you with Vincent’s summary of the siege of Stettin as an appropriate close to the early years of Christian expansion in the north, highlighting as it does the complex motives of its proponents:

[The representatives of the people of Stettin] asked why the Saxons had come and attacked them. If they had come to confirm them in the Christian faith, they said, this should be achieved not by war but by the preaching of bishops.  The Saxons had set this great expedition in motion more with a view to conquering territory than to confirm anyone in the Christian faith, but the bishops of Saxony, on hearing [that Stettin was a Christian city], held a council with Prince Ratibor of Pomerania and Albert, bishop of Pomerania.  Then, despite having lost many knights and princes, they went home.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Wojciech Gerson – Opłakane apostolstwo (1866)
  2. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
  3. Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades, (London: Penguin, 1997).
  4. Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt, The Popes and the Baltic Crusades, 1147 – 1254 (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  5. Helmold of Bosau The Chronicle of the Slavs, trans. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935).
  6. Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, trans. James A. Brundage (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  7. Mark R. Munzinger, ‘The Profits of the Cross: merchant involvement in the Baltic Crusade (c. 1180 – 1230),’ Journal of Medieval History 32 (2006).
  8. Louise and Jonathon Riley-Smith, The Crusades: Idea and Reality, 1095 – 1274, (London: Edward Arnold, 1981).
  9. Saxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum: The History of the Danes, edited by Karsten Friis-Jensen and translated by Peter Fisher, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2015).
  10. William Urban, The Baltic Crusade, 2nd (Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Centre, 1994).

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Crusaders on the Baltic Shore – The Livonian & Estonian Crusades (c. 1198 – 1290)

Saladin and the Lionheart: A call to Jihad and the Siege of Acre

See our bibliographies on the Crusades and Chronicle Editions.

6 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.