The Teutonic Knights

The original, full title of the order was The Teutonic Knights of the Hospital of Saint Mary the Virgin. This Order was established by a group of German Merchants who set up a hospital outside the besieged walls of the Acre in 1190 during the Third Crusade. This soon became a permanent hospital inside the walls.

 

What had formerly been a civilian charitable enterprise soon transformed into a military-religious order with a monastic discipline and way of life for its members, a constitution close to that of the Templars and Hospitallers and with a paramount purpose of fighting the infidel while continuing to tend to the sick and wounded. Their costume was a white cloak with black cross, worn over a white tunic. The order was composed of three types of brethren: knights, priests and sergeants, and was ruled by a Grand Master and a specially chosen Chapter of Knights.

 

Even though the Teutonic Knights continued to fight in the Holy Land until the last stand at Acre in 1291, their main activity had been centered in Northern Europe since the beginning of the 13th Century. There they launched a new Holy War against some of the wildest, most barbaric heathen tribes in the whole of the Western world. After fighting for a while in Transylvania, where the Hungarian King had called for the Knights' aid against marauding bands of pagans who were ravaging the province, the German Knights moved northwards, to the swamp-ridden, densely forested lands lying along the shores of the Baltic in what later became Prussia.

 

This Northern Crusade began in 1230 and contined without interruption throughout the century. The fighting was bitter, ferocious, pitiless and unlike any other war in Europe or the Near East because of the terrain and the local inhabitants. The Knightly Orders in the Holy Land and Spain had been fighting a highly civilized and sophisticated race. The Teutonics fought with a much more primitive enemy. The country where they had come to fight was a vast, mysterious and often impenetrable wilderness of sand dunes, lakes, rivers, bogs and gloomy forests along the shores of the Baltic. It was a dark, pagan, twilight world, inhabited by ferocious and cruel tribes who worshipped barbaric idols and practiced animal and human sacrifices. Both Prussians and Lithuanians continued to live as their ancestors had done during the time of the Roman Empire. They resisted every attempt to bring Christianity to them. THey clung to every ancestral custom and pagan rite of old, and they showed devilish ingenuity in ambushing, murdering and torturing their Christian enemies. However, it is only fair to say that from their point of view, their land was being invaded and the invaders were trying to force their religious beliefs on them. They were simply fighting back and were effective in doing so.

 

Strange, almost surrealistic battles were fought on frozen rivers and lakes, amid the deep snows and silences of forest clearings in the winter or the clammy mists of early spring and autumn. Always wearing their great white cloaks which often served as camouflage during the long winters, the Knights would charge out of the forests or from some riverside ambush against their heathen enemies who either met them on horseback or lay concealed, armed with bows and arrows, spears and axes.

 

After Prussia was settled, the Knights turned their attention to another land by the Baltic Sea, Lithuania, and in particular, the pagan nation called Samaiten. The natives of Lithuania were very close to the wild Prussians in their customs and fierce, blood-stained religion, but had the advantage of being a united people under intelligent and warlike rulers who were often, both militarily and diplomatically, a match for the Masters of the Teutonic Knights.

 

The glory of the Knights' society was at its highest when it suffered a blow from which it never recovered. Ambition and arrogance led to a disastrous defeat for the Knights. In 1386, the pagan Grand Duke who ruled Lithuania married the Queen of Poland, became a Catholic and was crowned King of both Poland and Lithuania. He began to convert his pagan subjects, something which the Teutonic Knights had never been able to achieve. Jealousy, mutual suspicions between the Order and Poland and bitter border disputes eventually led to war. The Polish kingdom gathered a huge army containing many Bohemian and Hungarian Knights as well as Tartar and Cossack auxiliaries and Lithuanian warriors, and resolved to put an end to the Order's pretensions once and for all by wiping it out completely. The Grand Master, Ulrich von Jungingen, confidently decided on speedy action against his massive enemy and battle was joined among the marches and woods of Tannenburg. When the battle was over, 200 German Knights lay dead on the field, while others were captured. The Order never regained its previous power as a fighting force. Nonetheless, its earlier Crusade in Prussia had been successful and the Order continued to exist as a glittering, worldly, aristocratic society throughout the late Middle Ages.

 

James Zoppe
Founder and Director
American Jousting Alliance

 

 

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