History & Analysis

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

The Eastern Baltic was unlike any other region where Rome sanctioned Crusade. The Northern Crusades cannot be cast as either a purely political expansion of territorial borders, or a purely religious expansion of the word of God. The territories under pagan control acted as a non-Christian buffer between Western and Eastern Christianity and, while the crusades were ostensibly directed at their conversion, for Latin Christendom, it was critical that they converted to the right type of Christianity. In the eyes of both Orthodox and Latin Christians, the pagan tribes of the Baltic shore did not so much represent aberrant religious groups needing conversion, as the inhabitants of lands that were strategically critical to the territorial and religious ambitions of both Eastern and Western Christianity.  It is not surprising then to find that, in the Baltic lands of eastern Europe, the crusading ideal evolved to match the unique conditions of the region, combining conversion, conquest, and commerce in a manner peculiar to the Northern Crusades.

With all that said, we are going to turn our attention to the crusades in Estonia and Livonia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is here, as the Latin crusaders transition between theatres of crusade, and the papacy renews crusading indulgences on the Baltic, that the unique character of the Northern Crusades begins to come into focus. While I will try as much as humanly possible to make this post stand as an independent article, I have already written on the Wendish Crusade, which provides useful context for the Livonian Crusade. The Wendish Crusade had begun in 1147, but it was from 1157 that Latin Christian expansion into north-eastern Europe truly accelerated and, as Wendish souls and lands came under the dominion of Christian lords, Latin eyes turned further east to pagan Livonia and Estonia.

(A note that I will be using ‘Livonia’ as a shorthand for ‘Livonia and Estonia.’ A slightly risky move given that we have a surprisingly large number of Estonian readers – who we love dearly – and Livonia no longer exists as a stand-alone political entity. However, historic Livonia occupied a territory that is divided by the modern border of Latvia and Estonia, and it is that region I am looking at today. These are a Finno-Ugric people, not a Slavic people like those targeted in the Wendish Crusade).


Map of the Estonian and Livonian Crusades, , taken from Eric Christiansen’s ‘The Northern Crusades.’ The campaigning centred in and around modern Estonia and Latvia.

Between 1147 when the Wendish Crusade was proclaimed, and a papal bull of 1171, the Northern Crusades operated without papal ratification. However, this does not mean that ecclesiastical authority was ever entirely unaware, or entirely disapproving, of territorial expansion on the northern frontier of Christendom. In 1169 the Danish King Waldemar I had led an army of Danes, Saxons and Christianised Slavs against the pagans of Rugen on the Baltic coast. His victory facilitated the annexation of Rugen and enforced the Christianisation of its population through the destruction of the symbols of their native religion.  Though Waldemar had not sought papal sanction for his endeavour, when informed of the successes of the mission, Pope Alexander III sent congratulations to the Danish king.  The conquest of the Rugians had evidently reawakened the papacy to the possibility of crusading in the north and, in 1171 Alexander issued a bull that offered crusading indulgences to those who campaigned against the Slavic peoples living near the southern shore of the Baltic sea. Further, it identified the next theatre of crusade on the Baltic. Perhaps considering the Wends to be sufficiently assimilated into Christendom to neutralise any threat, Alexander’s bull called for crusade against the Estonians; similar bulls would be issued by Celestine III in 1193 and Innocent III 1198, calling for holy war against the Livonians. Interestingly, Alexander’s bull commended the crusaders (somewhat ambiguously) to ‘hold back from pillaging and evil works’, while exhorting them to ‘spread the Christian religion with a strong arm’. In this declaration Alexander both validated the preceding twenty-five years of Latin aggression, and perpetuated the program of coercive conversion that Bernard of Clairvaux had promulgated at the opening of the Wendish Crusade. In the Baltic, conversion was by the sword.

The end of the Wendish Crusade is usually dated to 1185 with the suppression of a pagan Slavic uprising in the lands between the Elbe and the Oder rivers. The closure of that theatre of crusade changed the dynamics of political power moving forward, as a generation of Christianised Wends, enfeoffed to German and Danish lords, began to exert their influence over future campaigns. The crusaders were looking further east, and the political stability of the newly Christian states of the southern Baltic meant that newly Christian peoples of the region would be joining the push to expand Christendom beyond the Oder.

The Livonian Crusades are usually considered to begin in 1198, the year that Innocent III came to the papacy, renewing calls to holy war in the north. Innocent provided crusading indulgences equivalent to those given for pilgrimage to Rome, and renewed the Northern Crusades near annually throughout his papacy. Innocent liked a bit of crusading. Innocent was an innovator. Innocent promulgated crusades against Islam in the east and in Iberia, the pagans of the north, the heretics of Southern France, and the political enemies of the papacy. And not all of them were disastrous (oh but some of them were so disastrous – but no digressions). And Innocent’s policies had long repercussions – the Livonian Crusade would not end until 1290.  This means that, unlike the Wendish Crusade which operated in splendid isolation, the Livonian Crusade operated concurrently with the Prussian and Lithuanian Crusades, and therefore those campaigns will infringe here a little.

It was a period of intense activity on the northern frontier of Christendom, and the Northern Crusades continued to evolve over the century. Livonia was a strategically critical territory that presented Christendom with unique challenges and Innocent imbued the Northern Crusades with his innovative spirit. The crusaders battled not only native Estonians and Livonians, but also an ascendant pagan Lithuania, and Orthodox Christian Novgorod. They further had to protect the interests of a burgeoning North Sea trade network that had expanded into the Eastern Baltic, merchants having grasped the opportunities presented by the opening of the northern frontier as readily as the political and ecclesiastical polities of Northern Latin Christendom.  The papal responses to the military, religious and commercial complexities of the Livonian Crusade set policies in place that permeated the Northern Crusading movement until its cessation in the fifteenth century.

From the outset, the Livonian Crusade was run by ecclesiastical authority.  Innocent III’s clerics kept the papacy engaged in the politics of the northern frontier and the pontiff issued regular bulls and encyclicals sanctioning crusade and related activities.  The lack of secular authority meant this papal support was critical to navigating the politics of the region.  Innocent made decisions pertinent to the commercial, military and territorial setup of Estonia and Livonia, seeming to largely acquiesce to the requests of Albert, Bishop of Riga. The veneer of papal legitimacy gave these ecclesiastical intrusions into secular authority the necessary impetus to become standard on the Baltic frontier.

The Livonian Crusade is recorded in two main sources, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia and the Livlandische Reimchronik (which is very fun to say out loud). The anonymous author of the Rheimchronik provides a highly stylised poetic account of events through the eyes of the military order of the Teutonic Knights, interpreting events in a manner appropriate to an organisation whose chief concern was the salvation of souls through military service. Ambitious and aspirational, the Rheimchronik covers over one hundred years of crusading in the north, however is most contemporary in the latter years of the Livonian campaigns. But it is Henry who I will be drawing on most extensively here.

Henry provides a detailed prose account of events in Livonia and Estonia in the first forty years of crusading, ending in 1227.  His patron was Albert, the Bishop of Riga, and The Chronicle emphasises Albert’s role in extending Christianity along the Baltic shore. Henry details military campaigns, papal policy and the activities of the native pagan communities, while sounding a constant refrain that the Livonians were to be converted by any means necessary. It is Henry who records Innocent as imposing restrictions upon merchant activities in the war zone, at the port of Samgallia.  It is also Henry who relates Innocent’s legitimising of a new military order, the Livonian Sword Brethren, by providing them with the same monastic rule that had founded the Order of the Temple a century earlier.  These actions reflect the control the papacy had over the Christianised Baltic territories, while also showing that secular power in the Northern Crusades was transitioning from the political leaders who characterised the Wendish Crusade, to merchants and military orders.  This transition provided the Livonian Crusade with a cohesion, vigour and practicality that brought rapid success and allowed Albert to boast these successes before the council of the Roman Church:

In the year of the Lord’s incarnation 1215, a council was celebrated … Bishop Albert of Livonia and the bishop of Estonia were [there].  The bishop reported the troubles, the wars, and the affairs of the Livonian church to the supreme pontiff and to all the bishops.  They all rejoiced together over the conversion of the heathen and likewise over the wars and the manifold triumphs of the Christians.

                      Henry of Livonia, ch. 152

A Livonian Latin Christian bishopric based in Uxküll had existed prior to Innocent’s bull of 1198; the city had been established by merchants with the blessing of local pagan polities. However, upon taking control of the Livonian theatre of operations, Albert founded a new city and episcopal seat on the Dvina River. This city, Riga, was heavily fortified and closer to the Livonian coast, making it more accessible to merchants, reinforcements and new crusaders.  Yet Riga and Uxküll were isolated Christian outposts in hostile pagan territory.  The Livonian Christians found that isolation and chronic lack of manpower hindered their ability to effectively execute a crusade.  In response, the Livonian Church sought papal approval for the founding of the Sword Brethren, which Innocent granted in 1202. Though the Brethren did not grow to the size of the military orders founded in the Levant, this marked the introduction of monastic knights in the Baltic and led directly to the later dominance of the Teutonic Knights as secular lords and military missionaries in the Northern Crusades.

The ambiguity between religious and political objectives in the north became more entrenched as the military orders became responsible for the execution of the Livonian Crusade; political concerns of territorial gain vied with the ideals of salvation for the souls of crusader and pagan.  While I normally avoid quotes from secondary sources, I don’t think I can encapsulate the conflicting motives and politics in the Baltic States better than Norman Housley in his book Contesting the Crusades:

‘Self-interest jostled with altruism, politics with the hope of personal redemption; and kings, princes, papal legates, military orders and trading towns alternately co-operated and fought each other.’

The acquisition of land and power remained a key motive for the crusaders, including the military orders.  Henry records conflict between Bishop Albert and the Brethren around the distribution of conquered lands and, when the ascendant Teutonic Knights absorbed the Brethren, this overt concern with territory was also absorbed.  The Teutonic Knights sought lands and power, alongside personal redemption and the conversion of the pagans.

Stop. Digression time.

The Teutonic Knights had been formed in the crucible of the eastern crusades. Initially established as a hospital order for German pilgrims, under the influence of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and Innocent III, the order became militarised just as the Livonian Crusade began.  The order came to dominate the Northern Crusades, acquiring lands and titles and eventually garnering the right to declare crusade on the Baltic pagans without reference to Rome.  The Teutonic Knights’ involvement in the Northern Crusades was initially in the Prussian theatre of operations that ran from 1230 – 83.  The order had been invited to assist the secular leaders on the Prussian borders in 1225.  By the time Pope Gregory declared crusade against the Prussians in 1230 the order had been operating against the Prussian pagans for five years and been granted rights over any newly conquered land and their grand master had been made a prince of the Empire.  The order did not enter the Livonian Crusade until 1238, and therefore their activities do not feature in Henry’s chronicle.  Nicolaus von Jeroschin’s Chronicle of Prussia details both the Prussian Crusade and the establishment of the Teutonic order on the Baltic.  However, before Jeroschin introduces the Teutonic Knights, he gives a brief account of the establishment of what is clearly described as an outpost of the Sword Brethren in Prussian territory at the fortress of Dobrin.  As a chronicler and chaplain of the Teutonic Knights, it is unlikely that Jeroschin understood the nuances of the native orders. The Knights of Dobrin in fact operated independently of the Brethren, however were destined for the same fate as their Livonian cousins: absorbed by the Teutonic order.  Yet assimilation was not a simple process and the native orders would leave the Teutonic Knights a difficult legacy, having gained a reputation for rapaciousness, rebelliousness and ineffectiveness.

There will be much, much more on the Teutonic Knights when I return to Prussia in my next article on the Baltic Crusades. But first we need to wrap up Livonia and the Sword Brethren…

Despite Henry’s extensive references to the Brethren, they were not the dominant crusading force in Livonia. The coalitions of the past were evident and Crusaders from Scandinavia and the Empire heeded the call to war in Livonia and Estonia, operating concurrent campaigns, and annexing territory as they progressed.  New polities also responded to the call for crusade in the north.  Polish and Slavic crusaders gathered to Riga, while the Swedes became active within the territories controlled by Orthodox Novgorod.  The operations of such diverse armies throughout the region accelerated territorial annexation and by the middle of the century Livonia and Estonia were divided between the Danes, Germans and Novgorod, with Latin Christian lands falling under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Riga.  This brought challenges to the unity of the crusaders.  The Danes fought to maintain control over the coastal regions of Estonia, the German crusaders fought amongst themselves to establish land ownership, and the Sword Brethren became virtually politically independent.

From their creation until their dissolution in 1236, the Brethren were critical to the expansion of Christendom.  Henry of Livonia attributes numerous victories to the order against the pagans and Orthodox Christians, and even when victory was achieved through a coalition of crusading forces, Henry emphasises the contribution of the Brethren to the endeavour and notes any significant martyrdoms. In this Henry was likely flattering the Brethren and their mutual patron, Albert. The order was always small; formed as an elite unit designed to consolidate military gain rather than to form a core of the attacking armies.  As the Brethren gathered power, they also garnered an independence which saw them engage in practices that drew censure from papal legates, bishops, and the local populations.  Henry is rarely directly critical of the Brethren, however the Chronicle is littered with admonitions of the order by ecclesiastical authorities which suggest a counter-productive severity in their administration and an unwillingness to submit to church authority. In 1234 assertions were made to the papacy that the order was colluding with Orthodox Novgorod against Latin Christian leaders in contravention of the papal exhortation against alliances with the Russians or pagans. Henry implies that the order were happy to ally with Latin or Eastern Christian or pagan in order to ensure their continued political dominance and wealth.  By 1235, ecclesiastical authorities had recommended the order be dissolved and, when the Brethren assessed by the Teutonic Knights, they were declared to be made up of ‘people who followed their own inclination, and did not keep their rule properly.’

None of this applies in any genuine way to the Knights of Dobrin in Prussia, whom Jeroschin paints as entirely inept: watching from the safety of their castle as the pagans put Christians to the sword and ravaged the surrounding lands. The Knights of Dobrin would be the first native military order absorbed by the Teutonic Knights in 1235, and a warning to the Brethren of changes on the wind…

Which is where I will leave Livonia, Estonia, and the Brethren. Clearly the crusades in Prussia and Lithuania, and the Teutonic Knights, are already a part of the story, and I haven’t got us up to 1290. However, we are at the point where the Teutonic Knights are about to take control, and the character of the Northern Crusades changes once again. While each theatre may be identifiably unique in location and regional political structure, the overlapping time-lines and intertwined political underpinnings from 1230 make it difficult to isolate the campaigns from one another. So, when I return to the Baltic (if and when that ever happens), I will be backtracking a little in time and looking at the Prussian and Lithuanian Crusades more fully, and following the fortunes of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Knights until the last holder of the title converts to Lutheranism. There is something to look forward to!

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Cesis Castle ruins (Latvia) – the original castles was begun in 1209 by the Livonian Sword Bretheren as their centre of operations. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades, (London: Penguin, 1997).
  3. Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt, The Popes and the Baltic Crusades, 1147 – 1254(Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  4. Henricus Lettus, The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, trans. James A. Brundage (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
  5. Norman Housley, Contesting the Crusades, Oxford, Blackwell, 2006.
  6. Mark R. Munzinger, ‘The Profits of the Cross: merchant involvement in the Baltic Crusade (c. 1180 – 1230),’ Journal of Medieval History 32 (2006).
  7. Nicolaus von Jeroschin, The Chronicle of Prussia: A History of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, 1190 – 1331, trans. Mary Fischer (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010).
  8. 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).
  9. Jerry Smith and William Urban, ed. and trans., The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1977).
  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 Wendish Crusade (1147 – c.1185)

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

 See our bibliographies on the Crusades and Chronicle Editions.

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