A few days ago we were talking about the Order of the Teutonic Knights, a religious-military order founded during the Third crusade in the Holy Land, similar to that of the gentlemen hospitable Y Knights Templar.
Although it never had such a relevant weight in those distant lands as the rest of military orders, the true protagonism of the Teutonic knights did not reside in the crusades in which they participated in Tripoli, but those that were carried out on European territory, in Prussia and the lands of the East.
Since the 10th century, the Christianity he had the strong intention of establishing his creed in the pagan lands of Prussia and its eastern neighbors. To this end, military campaigns had been established in Prussia, but the resistance of this people to embrace the Christian faith endangered any mission of conversion.
Thus, in 1217, several positions of the German Church requested the protection of the crusaders to defend their convents and Pope Honorius III issued a bull in March for the crusade in those lands. The first Prussian Crusade was organized in 1221. That mission failed, which forced Duke Conrad I of Mazovia to request the help of the Teutonic knights in 1224.
The Hochmeister (the grand master) chastened after the Hungarian conflict in which they were deprived of the lands they had previously conquered, he did not want to start the crusade until he knew that he had the approval of the Emperor and the Pope. Negotiations dragged on for several years, but eventually agreements were signed with the Emperor in Rimini and the Duke of Poland in Kruzswica, which granted the possession of the new lands to the knights. This time, the dream of creating a Teutonic territory got off to a good start.
The base of operations was established in Vogelsang, where a castle was built near the Elbe in 1228. There the Order had 20 knights and 200 sergeants under the command of Frater Hermann Balke, who would begin the pacification of the Kulm province. Little did the teutons, that this crusade was not going to be an easy task.
Those territories were not like the great plains of Holy Land or like the great German valleys, where the heavy cavalry had no possible restraint. This land was quite different, covered entirely with moors, lakes, and dense vegetation.
Ambushes by native tribes used to take place, where swamps and dense forests formed a great handicap for cavalry troops. The knights could not charge in wide formations, they had to break their lines to be able to maneuver in that rugged terrain and were assaulted, dismounted and stabbed to the ground, or worse, taken prisoner.
The chronicles tell us about the dramatic end of the prisoners of those barbarous tribes. They were burned alive within their armor, as if they were a piece of barbecue. But the knights were great strategists, not just warlike tribes lurking behind the forest. They soon figured out how to deal with them and the Order spent the next two years systematically eliminating all resistance, building towers and fortifications, burning villages and exterminating anyone who did not accept Christianity.
In 1239 the territory was practically conquered and the order divided into three factions that controlled the strategic points. The German faction was found mainly in the South and Southwest of Germany, the Prussian branch included the conquered territories centered in Marienburg and administered by a Landmeister and the new province of Livonia, administered by the Landmeister Hermann Balke.
However, as had already been shown in Holy Land, the order was extremely greedy and still coveted land and power. In 1242 they attempted an ambitious campaign in Livonia, with which they tried to seize new fiefdoms at the expense of other Christians, the Orthodox Russians. The Order clashed on April 5 with the Russian army under the command of Prince Alexander Nevsky, who encircled them forcing them to fight over the frozen Lake Peipus.
The Russian cavalry was a type of light and medium light cavalry, designed specifically to fight over those frozen wastelands at high speed. The German crusaders say they mocked the lightly armored troops and thought the vast frozen territory was ideal for an old-fashioned heavy cavalry charge.
Thus, after several volleys of arrows that decimated the little protected Russian army, they galloped after those infantrymen and light horsemen. The dense Russian ice seemed to hold the weight of the armored horsemen smoothly and the first casualties were in favor of the Teutonic order.
However, as the battle progressed and the Russian army fell back the ice was cracking, and when the decisive charge was launched with dozens of heavy horsemen, the ground gave way. Virtually the entire army of the Order plunged into the icy waters of the lake, never to surface again.
That fateful day the Teutonic army suffered a huge defeat which encouraged the subjugated Prussian peoples to consider an uprising. It would not take long for a visceral hatred for the Order to spread from Lithuanians and Poles, who clashed in the tragic Battle of Grünwald, which ended Teutonic power and the old dream of creating their own state in Europe.
Map image: S. Bollmann on Wikimedia