The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Coat of Arms of Grand Duchy of Lithuania

The Crusades in Latvian land ended in Crusader win and Early Latvian enslavement. Same thing happened to Estonians, but closest Latvian nation the Lithuania could withstand the Crusader attack and form a unified country which was  one of the largest European nations for many decades. The phenomenon of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy which was at  its height 10 times larger than present day Lithuanian country is still not completely explained even by Lithuanians themselves.

In 12-13 century the political processes in Lithuania was not interrupted by foreign forces. That was for geographical  reasons, for Lithuania was more inland based than Latvia or Estonia. The Germans from the west was blockaded by Prussia and Poland and Russians from the east was busy dealing with Mongol rulers. The social differentiation between Lithuanian tribes was deepening; one became a warrior or a farmer, another got the rights of the ruling. In the place of Elders  the leader place was taken kunigaikštis the high nobles who got their seats inherited so they became kings a formed their dynasties. The high organization of Lithuanian military led to many raids in neighboring lands which were so deadly that made Lithuanians a feared threat. In previous posts about the Crusades in Latvian land the Lithuanian attacks were mentioned many times. They could even reach the outskirts of Karelia.

The high civil organization and military strength led to the unification of various Lithuanian and Samogotian regions, they were ruled by  kunigaikštis. At the 13th century thirties and forties the one of kunigaikštis Mindaugas emerged as sole ruler of all Lithuanian and Samogotian lands. He did this by using force and guile assassinating his enemies and started to rule Lithuania by himself.

Lithuanian country met his first crisis in 1248 when the conflict emerged between Mindaugas and his relatives. Against Mindaugas also joined forces the Duke of Galicia and Volinia Danil Romanovich and many others. However Mindaugas managed to split his enemy ranks; he baptized in 1251 and in 1253 he was recognized by the Pope as the King of Lithuania. Lithuania was officially recognized as a rightful Catholic European kingdom and was removed from the Crusader hit list. But the resistance to Mindaugas remained strong, the baptizing made a heavy disappointment in Samogitans. Samogotia was ceded to the Crusaders by Mindaugas, but Samogotians upraised and in 1258 they defeated the Order at Skoda and in 1260  at Durbe. This made Mindaugas restart his war against the Crusaders and in 1261 he again became Pagan canceling his baptizing. Finlay in 1263 Mindaugas was assassinated by conspirators and Christianity was frowned upon.  Mindaugas today is considered as the symbol of Lithuanian nation and one of the main Lithuanian historic personalities. He was a tyrant and powermonger but his achievements was groundbreaking for Lithuanians.

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

Sculpture of the King Mindaugas

After his death his heirs Treniota, Mindaugas sister son (1263.-1264), Vaišvilka (1264.-1267)- Mindaugas son, The son of Danil Romanovich Duke Shvarn (1267-1269). The power struggle made crisis and endangered Lithuania for could became part of Crusaders or Duchy of Galicia and Volinia. The crisis was brought to an end by Grand Duke Traidenis (1267-1282). He unified the tribes, defeated the Volonians and Crusaders and expanded the Lithuania even further.

At the end of 13th century Lithuania was ruled by Gediminian dynasty. Crusaders attacked Lithuania every year reaching the outskirts of Vilnius. Lithuanians fortified their positions and gathered their forces and the war against the Crusaders lasted all 14th century. Not only German knights came to Lithuania, even from France and Spain the volunteer knights traveled to bring Christianity back to Lithuania. To weaken enemy the Grand Duke Gediminas took part in the civil war between Livonian Order and Riga Town Council and Archbishop, he supported Riga for Riga was only trade partner for Lithuania.  Lithuania tried to reach the end of the Crusades by trying to baptize again amid strong Pagan opposition. In the mean time Lithuanians expanded their territory to the east. Since the Russians were weakened by the Mongols and Mongols were weakened themselves, Lithuanians at the reign of Algirdas took the Duchies of Polotsk, Smolensk, Vitebsk, and Kiev under their rule. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania sized 800 000 square kilometers and reached to the shores of the Black Sea.

But the giant kingdom was endangered bitterly by Crusaders and Duchy of Moscow. Algirdas tried to capture Moscow three times but never succeeded. After his death in 1377 the conflict between his heirs Kęstutis, Vytautas and Jogaila emerged. Kęstutis, Vytautas was of the old Pagan elite but Jogaila was from new generation. Jogaila killed Kęstutis and exiled Vytautas and took all power to himself. He was convinced that Lithuania must baptize again to secure peace. In 1358 the Krėva agreement was signed between Poland and Lithuania and in 1386 when Jogaila married Polish princess Jadviga he became the king of Poland as king Vladislav I, remained as Grand Duke of Lithuania. He tried to use Poles in governing of Lithuania, this was resisted by Lithuanian elite and Vytautas who used the support of Russian boyars and the Crusaders.  In 1392 Vytautas regained the throne of Lithuania from Jogaila.

Vytautas kept Lithuania as Catholic country, but Teutonic Crusaders still attacked Lithuania. In 1410  February 15 the Order was annihilated in Battle of Grunwald one of the largest battles of Medieval war history. But the Lithuanians did not use the opportunity to Crush the Order completely in 1411 at Toruń a peace was signed. But in 1422 the Order tried to attack again but were forced to sign peace once and for all. The Crusader aggression was finally halted.  Vytautas could even capture Novgorod and Moscow and claim the throne of Moravia during the Hussite Wars.

After the death Vytautas political struggle again took place. Jogaila again claimed the throne of Lithuania. He passed the throne to Švitrigaila, but this was resisted by Polish elite and civil war broke out. Švitrigaila was deposed by Sigismund the brother of Vytautas. He defeated Švitrigaila and Livonian Order forces, but was killed by conspirators in 1440. Boyar’s crowned the thirteen year old Jogaila’s son Kazimir as king of Lithuania. In 1447 he became king of Poland also making the personal – union between Poland and Lithuania. Until Kazimir reached adulthood the power was concentrated between  Boyar oligarchs.  Boyars were Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Polish noble elite who fought for equal rights in their ranks. It’s axiomatic that if the country lacks strong ruler then the country is ruled by oligarchy and is weakened because of their inner fights. Boyars started to gain more power,  Radziwiłł family was strongest Boyar dynasty.

In the 16th century the Grand Duchy of Moscow started to take Lithuanian lands. Smolensk was lost, but further advance on Moscow was halted because the Russian population of Lithuania remained loyal. But even more problems came from Poland; both countries were ruled by same dynasty rulers and both societies of two states came even closer. Poles wanted the vast lands of Lithuania for they were good for colonization.  In 16th century Lithuania was de facto united with Poland and boyars was for full unification.

This finally happened in 1569 July 1 The Union of Lublin took place. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita was formed. The full independence of Lithuania came to an end. In next decades the Poles took most power in states manners. But the union was necessary for Lithuanian survival because the danger of Russia was growing and Lithuania needed the Polish help to fight Russian advance. The union lasted until 1795 when it was annexed by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Seleted Sources:

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Plakans, Andrejs. (2011) A concise history of the Baltic States. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press


Advertisements

Comments Off on The Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Filed under Historical Articles

Comments are closed.