Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

The Northern Crusades |
Fierce fighters against conversion

The Northern Crusades is drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 248, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The western mission to the eastern Baltic peoples began with a martyrdom, was pursued with the sword, and was stopped dead on the ice of Lake Peipus

The Northern Crusades - Fierce fighters against conversion

The Northern Crusades - Fierce fighters against conversion
A medieval festival in Germany provides a modern depiction of a Teutonic Knight in full battle armor on his warhorse. This order of knight-monks, while founded and active in the Holy Land during the Crusades, was most effective in the Baltics, helping to push the frontier of Latin Christianity three hundred miles eastward.

In 1198 Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen sent Abbot Berthold of Loccum to Riga, on the Baltic Sea. Along the way, separated from his Saxon escort, Berthold was surrounded by Livonian warriors and ripped to pieces. However inauspiciously, the missionary conquest of the eastern Baltic tribes had begun.

Undeterred, Hartwig sent as replacement his nephew Bishop Albert of Buxtehude, who arrived at the mouth of the Dvina River in 1200 with twenty-three ships and five hundred crusaders to begin his mission to the Livonians. After probing upstream to assess the situation, he finally settled in Riga, a strongpoint easily supplied by sea.

Bishop Albert was no fool. So ferociously did the Livonians resist any effort to convert them to Christianity that he quickly decided a permanent military presence was the only way that his mission would survive. In 1202 he established a small private army of knight-monks called the Brothers of the Knighthood of Christ, or the Sword Bearers, to garrison Riga and the Dvina valley.

The Sword Bearers, however, soon were being accused of every conceivable crime. So plagued were they by scandal, in fact, that contemporaries were not surprised when in 1209 one of the brothers, Wigbert of Soest, went so far as to murder their first grand master, Winno, with an ax. But the end for these infamous knight-monks came in the summer of 1236, when Lithuanians slaughtered most of their army near Siauliai.

Meanwhile, another private army was formed in 1207 by Bishop Christian, a Cistercian missionary to the Prussians who also decided that he needed troops to protect his precarious establishment in Prussian territory. His knight-monks were known as the Knights of the Bishop of Prussia, or the Knights of Dobrzyn, but by 1235, after a lackluster military record, they, too, vanished from history.

But remnants of both groups found their way into the ranks of the older and more stable Teutonic Order of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem. Formed in 1190 to care for German casualties in the Third Crusade, the Teutonic Knights had set up a field hospital during the crusader attack on Acre. By 1198 they had formed into a military monastic community that fought beside the Templars and Hospitallers. Later the Teutonic Knights transferred to the Baltic region to become a key player in the conversion and/or subjugation of the Baltic peoples.

The history of these knights in Europe became somewhat checkered. In 1211 they helped defend Hungary from an attack by the wild Cuman tribes but alarmed Hungary’s King Andrew I by petitioning Pope Honorius III to bring them under the direct authority of the Holy See. Viewing this as an attempt to escape his control, King Andrew expelled them from Hungary in 1225.

The following year the Polish duke Conrad I of Mazovia appealed to the Teutonic Knights to subdue his Prussian enemies, an assignment that they reportedly executed with notable brutality. As the thirteenth century unfolded, they also rolled eastward through the Baltics, crushing in turn the Livonians, the Prussians, the Estonians, and the Finns.

Not that their long campaign to conquer and convert the Baltic pagans was entirely completed, since pockets of resistance and regular revolts by the conquered tribes continued beyond the end of the century. Nor were they able to force Latin Christianity upon Orthodox Russia; their defeat at the Battle of Lake Peipus marked the complete failure of that enterprise (see accompanying chapter).

The eagerness of western Europeans to influence and subdue the Baltic was clearly a product of mixed motives. The papacy sanctioned these military campaigns as crusades, but commercial and political ambitions figured prominently. And as is clearly shown in a document known as the Erikskranikan, describing the expedition of the Swedes against the Finns in 1249, loot and adventure were also important motivators.

Whatever the motives, by the end of the thirteenth century the Baltic Sea had become a “Latin sea” and the political-religious map of the eastern Baltic had been radically reorganized. The cross had been widely planted and eight new bishoprics established. Livonia, Prussia, Estonia, and Finland were emerging from their tribal beginnings. And the frontier of Latin Christianity had been pushed nearly three hundred miles eastward.

This is the end of the The Northern Crusades category article drawn from Chapter Nine, beginning on page 248, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about The Northern Crusades from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at