lithuania 1350 AD to 1500 AD
Lithuanian Picture Gallery
Mercenary Heavy cavalry and Polish Allies
The Lithuania of the 14 century was one of the largest states in Eastern Europe. Her borders ran from the Baltic to the Black sea and included Byelorussia, parts of the Ukraine and the Samogitia territories. Lithuanian history of the period is defined by her neighbours. The Samogitian territories separated the Livonian Knights from the Teutonic Order and as a result was in a state of continual warfare. The Byelorussia and Ukrainian territories were raided and contested by the Tatars of the Golden Horde and later by the emerging Russian state. Poland alternated between being hostile to that of a close ally and finally as a partner in a united state.
Lithuania remained one of the last pagan nations of Europe only finally becoming officially Christian in 1387. Paganism continued in much of Lithuania and continued to cause conflict with her Christian neighbours, particularly the Teutonic Order. The territory of the Samogitian tribes remained resolutely pagan until well into the 16 century.
Polish King Casimer III captured the Lithuanian town of Halich and began a long struggle for control of the Volynia area. The war was marked by its skirmishing nature, large armies rarely took to the field as each Nation was involved in conflicts else. However by 1366 Poland had captured the western part of Volynia but was unable to make further gains. The war petered out and both sides accepted the status quo
The Teutonic Order along with their brother Knights of the Livonian Order attack and destroy Kaunas castle and began a concerted campaign of attrition in the Samogitian territories. Between 1342 and 1382 the Orders launched over 100 major attacks and countless border raids on Lithuania and Samogitia. Lithuania retaliated with over 30 counter attacks. One such attack in 1348 resulted in the defeat at Streva Stream (Strawe River) where two members of the ruling Gediminaitis family were killed. Grand Duke Algirdas (1345-77) and his brother Kestutis did conduct a highly successful defensive war and prevented the Orders from making any permanent gains.
1362 also saw the high point of Lithuanian expansion into the Russian lands. Exploiting internal conflicts of the Golden Horde Grand Duke Algirdas invaded and defeated a large Tatar army near the Blue Waters (Sinivody). This campaign saw the capture of Kiev and the Podolia.
1368, 1370 and 1372
Lithuanian armies attempt to subdue Moscow on behalf of Grand Duke Algirdass father in law, Duke Micheal of Tver. The campaigns are a failure and Duke Micheal is forced in 1375 to accept rule from Moscow and renounce his allegiance to Lithuania.
Grand Duke Algirdas died, having nominated one of his younger sons, Jogaila, as successor. (later King Jagiello of Poland). The Grand Dukes brother Kestutis supported Jagaila. Duke Andrius of Polotsk, Algirdas eldest son however revolted, claiming the throne for himself. Andrius mustered a significant level of support, including two of his brothers, The Teutonic Order and Dmitri, the Grand Prince of Moscow, who welcomed the opportunity to meddle in his neighbours affairs. Dmitris support was limited, only being able to offer the rebels a base for operations, as he was involved in a conflict with Khan Mamai of the Golden Horde. There followed three years of skirmishes where neither side managed to gain the upper hand.
Jogaila reaches a peace agreement with the Teutonic Order which apparently included a clause allowing Teutonic attacks on the personal holdings of his Uncle Kestutis. They in turn withdrew their support for Andrius. Jogaila having concluded his talks with the Order marched to aid Khan Mamai in his war with Dimitri. Jogaila learned of the Khans defeat at Kulikovo Field while marching and returned to Lithuanian territory. Whether the clause in the treaty with the Teutonic Order existed or not, Kestutis believed it did and the less than rapid response of jogailas troops to attacks on Kestutiusproperties added to his suspicions. Kestutis and his supporters seized Vilnius and arrested Jogaila who was sent to his estates, under guard.
While Kestutis was occupied putting down a revolt by Jogailas younger brother Korybutas at Novgorod, Jogailas supporters launched a counter coup, rescuing the Duke and taking back control of Vilnius. Jogaila called on the Teutonic Order and between them they laid siege to Kestutis principal stronghold, the island fortress town of Trakai. Kestutis finding himself outnumbered attempted to negotiate a compromise but was arrested and later assassinated by Jogailas men. Kestutis' son Vytautas fled to the Teutonic Order.
The Teutonic Order installed Vytautas as ruler over their conquered Samogitian territories and supplied him with troops. Using Vytautas as a figure head the Order were able to conquer or subvert much of the Lithuanian controlled parts of Samogitia, building numerous wooden keeps to aid their control. Vytautas captured Trakai and laid siege to Vilnius. he was forced to retreat after Jogaila's younger Brother Skirgaila recaptured Trakai.
Jogaila offered Vytautas his ancestral lands back if he turned on the Teutonic Order. Vytautas accepted and organised a revolt over all the Samogitian lands. Almost all of the Teutonic Order's gains over the last 20 years were lost, most of their forts falling without a struggle. Vytautas led troops against the few who managed to fend of the initial assaults. Although Vytautas and Jogaila were reconciled Jogaila left his brother Skiraila in charge of the North-Western provinces returning only some of Vytautas' lands to him.
Simultaneous to resolving Lithuania's civil war Jogaila had successfully concluded negotiations with the Polish Noble representatives for his marriage to Queen Jadwyga. Part of the agreement was the conversion of Lithuania to Christianity.
Jogaila married Jadwyga and assumed the responsibility of King of Poland and the new name Ladislaus Jagiello, although not actually being crowned in his own right until 1396. Jagiello left his brother Skiraila in charge of Lithuania. Skiraila's high handed approach combined with the enforced Christian reforms caused tensions. Vytautas headed up resistance and was soon embroiled in a war of words with Skiraila. Jagiello's response was to threaten them both, saying he would remove one of them if they did not sort out their differences.
Vytautas renegotiated his old alliance with the Teutonic Order, this time handing over substantial numbers of hostages and agreeing to the constant presence of Lithuanian speaking Knights. Skiraila was forewarned and the initial attack on Vilnius was repulsed. There followed three years of success for Vytautas and the Teutonic Order. Defence of Lithuania was left in the hands of Jagiello's brothers, all of whom proved unable to conduct an adequate campaign. Once again the Samogitians tribes supported Vytautas, worse increasing numbers of Lithuanians were willing to join him.
Jagiello found that only Polish troops were capable and loyal enough to counter the rebel forces. From 1390 the governor of Vilnius was the Polish noble, Jan Olenicki. Manoeuvrings by King Sigismund of Hungary had isolated the Polish State, possibly with the aim of seizing the rich southern areas for Hungary.
Jagiello proved he was the master of the situation. Using the Prussian Bishop Henry of Pock, Jagiello was able to pass a message to Vytautas offering much if he once again reconciled himself to the throne. Again Vytautas accepted and managed to convince the Teutonic Order to release many of his goodwill hostages. Leading the Samogitians in revolt Vytautas undid the last three years and rejoined his cousin. This Jagiello honoured his commitments and made Vytautas defacto ruler of Lithuania.
1393 to 1394
Vytautas reorganised the Lithuanian government and crushed much of the opposition. Campaigns against the rival Dukes and Princes culminated in the battle of Kremenets in 1394. The Dukes of Galicia, Volhynia and Moldavia were all defeated and forced into exile.
Vytautas organised a truce with the Teutonic Order and attempted to enlarge Lithuania's southern borders at the expense of the Golden Horde. Vytautas organised two campaigns (97 and 98) to assist the deposed Khan Tochtamysh. The campaigns failed to achieve their intended objective although several notable victories were won. A peace treaty between Lithuania, Poland and the Teutonic Order was signed in 1398, handing all Samogitian territory over to the Knights. Vytautas went as far as to militarily support the Teutonic Order in gaining control of the areas.
With the support of the Pope and the Orthodox Patriach of Moscow Vytautas organised a crusade against the Tatars of Timur. Leading a mostly Lithuanian force but including Russians, Poles, Germans and Order Knights Vytautas invaded the Golden Horde. At the Vorksla river Vytautas' 'grand' army was slaughtered, falling prey to the disciplined fighting forces of the Tatars. Vytautas left almost two thirds of his army dead on the field or in the pursuit. His plans for Southern Lithuania in ruins Vytautas soon turned his attention once again to his Northern border and his long time allies amongst the Samogitians.
Vytautas is made Grand Duke of Lithuania by Jagiello. An abortive revolt by the Samogitians was crushed by the Teutonic Order.
Vytautas campaigns against Smolensk, annexing it for Lithuania.
Vytautas again stirs the Samogitians into revolt. This time Vytautas and Jagiello go to their aid.
Battle of Tannenberg saw the might of the Teutonic army crushed by a combined Polish/Lithuanian army. The campaign is not however a success as distrust between Jagiello and Vytautas meant gains were minimal.
Treaty of Thorn signed between the warring parties. The Teutonic Order relinquishes all claims to Samogitian territory but only for as long as Vytautas and Jagiello are alive.
Lithuanian and Polish representatives at the Church Council of Constance argue that Samogitia and Lithuania are no longer legitimate targets for crusaders. Their arguments fail to win over the council.
Vytautas attempted to convert Lithuania into a separate Monarchy, with himself as King. He was supported by Emperor Sigismund, who supplied the royal crown and legal documents. The Crown was intercepted by Polish troops and Vytautas died before any action could be taken.
Grand Duke Svitrigaila attempted to emulate Vytautas in becoming King of an independent Lithuania but was outmanoeuvred by the Polish King and deposed in favour of Zygimantas Kestutaitis. Zygimantas renounced Lithuanian sovereignty and with the aid of Polish troops defeated his deposed rival Svitrigaila at the battle of Asmena.
Battle of Pabaiskas (Ukmerge or Swienta) An allied army of Polish and Lithuanians defeat Svitrigaila and his Livonian Knight allies.
Zygimantas Kestutaitis is assassinated at Traika and the Lithuanian Nobles elect Kazimieras Jogailaitis (Kazimierz Jagiellończyk) to be their Duke.
Kazimieras Jogailaitis elected King of Poland, as Casimer the III. Allows the Lithuanian Nobles considerable autonomy. This is reflected in their attempt at a revolt in 1456 and their refusal to send military aid to Poland during the 13 years war with the Teutonic Order (1454-1467).
There is little direct information on the Lithuanian armies of the period. What there is comes from their enemies and neighbours, not infrequently one in the same. The sources are in themselves general at their best. The early period (1100 to 1300) has limited sources. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle written at the end of the 13th Century contains the most information on Lithuania but as a military source is limited. The earlier Henricus de Lettis' Chronicle which records 1184 to 1227 limits itself to brief accounts of Lithuanian raids.
The later period is better represented with numerous sources for the Tannenberg where the Lithuanian army fought along side the Polish. The Lithuanian Chronicles of the 16 Century draw on early accounts but combine these into a confused single narrative. The later Polish writer Spieralski (17th Century) in his art of war included a brief commentary on Lithuanian armies of the 15th and 16th Centuries.
Spieralski records 15 Century Lithuanian armies being raised in a manner similar to that of the Polish Grand Levy. It was called Land Service and each district had a lieutenant, later called a voyevoda, who was responsible for raising the levy and keeping track of who owed service. Service was by the number of households a Noble's land contained. Nobles with little land were grouped into larger units to provide a single mounted man between them. Prince Aleksander Jagielloncyk in 1492 stated all princes and boyars had to bring one soldier armed with a lance to muster for every ten households on his land. The strong central authority of Lithuania, primarily due to its hereditary leadership meant that there was not the problems suffered in Poland with their General Levy. This meant that this method of army raising lasted until 1566.
Earlier Lithuanian armies were raised by Family gatherings. Each Boyar Family mustered under their leaders, bringing with them retainers from their lands. This older method of troop raising was in fact very similar to the structured Land Service. Like Poland the Lithuanian Nobles and their retainers fought together in the same unit.
The civil wars that racked Lithuania, on and off from 1380 to the 1440's saw a bewildering array of alliances and troops fighting along side native armies. These included Russians, Teutonic Knights, Poles, Hussites of Bohemia and Tatars (allies and 'natives')
The Boyars provided the 'heavy' cavalry element of the Lithuanian armies. Lithuanian Boyars never adopted the heavy plate of the Western nations. Their armour would have been a mix of chain, scale or even leather. Some Western style armour did begin to appear amongst the wealthiest Boyars. Grand Duke Vyataus is recorded as wearing Plate armour at Tannenberg, hiding it under a dark cloak. His seal of the late 14 Century also shows him wearing plate. The fighting style and rapid movement of Lithuanian armies appeared to have limited its adoption. Boyars also retained the shield far longer than their Western neighbours. The main weapon was a Light lance called a spisa.
Mercenary Heavy cavalry and Polish Allies
After the battle of Tannenberg and the union of Lithuania and Poland there, following Polish trends of the later 15 Century, arose mercenary units in the employ of the Grand Dukes. These appear to have been based on the Polish practises rather than native Lithuanian. See Polish pages. Unlike Poland the mercenary units contained troops of many nationalities, Russians and Poles often forming the largest.
Part of the Union saw many Lithuanian Boyars adopted into Polish Noble families. This resulted in Polish troops fighting side by side with Lithuanian armies. Often because of these family ties but sometimes as part of a larger contingent raised by the Polish king. These Polish and mercenary elements in their heavier equipment provided a hard hitting element previously lacking amongst the Lithuanian nobility.
The Lithuanian retainers were drawn from the land holdings of their boyar. They were lightly equipped with spisa, bow and shield. Armour was strictly limited most relied on heavy fur skin jackets. Prior to the 15 Century the use of the bow appears to have been limited to when the cavalry dismounted. Continued exposure to the Tatar tactics of the South and the Polish to the West saw Lithuanian retainers use the bow while mounted. Like the Polish this was used to shoot in the charge of the Boyars, the retainers followed in support.
Lithuanian infantry was a very minor part of their armies. It comprised of lightly armed spearmen or bowmen adept in the woods and marshes that made up much of Northern Lithuania. Lithuanian armies often dismounted a proportion of their cavalry to provide infantry if the battlefield required it.
Much of South and East Lithuania was made up of Russian lands and supplied contingents of troops for the Lithuanian armies. See Russian pages for details of their composition and tactics. The Russians along with the Polish troops were the most effective heavy horse available to the Lithuanians and as such were likely to be found in the centre of the battleline. The Russian troops from Smolensk were a key part in preventing the Union army's collapse at the battle of Tannenberg .
From Vyataus' reign as Grand Duke Tatar settlements in Lithuania grew in number. They supplied light horse as part of their obligations to the Crown. They retained their own tactics (See Golden Horde pages).Vyataus apparently maintained a personal bodyguard of Tatar troops drawn from settlements around his personal fief of Trakai. Larger numbers also fought under their own leaders as allied of the Lithuanians. Between 1396 and 1399, the deposed Khan Tochtamysh of the Golden Horde supplied significant Tatar forces for Lithuanian campaigns in the Crimea. His flight may well have precipitated the rout that destroyed the Lithuanian army at the Vorksla river
Although a predominantly 'light' horse army the Lithuanians adopted highly aggressive tactics on the battlefield. The opening stages saw them use their speed of movement to probe for weaknesses and to cut off or flank isolated enemy units. Initial skirmishing was often brief with the Lithuanians reforming into multiple lines and launching a general charge. These tactics often brought problems to the Lithuanians especially when fighting the Teutonic Order, whose troops were far better equipped for close combat. Parts of the Lithuanian army would often break under the strain and flee. Sometimes this 'rout' was feigned to lure the enemy out of line so they could be cut off and slaughtered. Spieralski makes note that Polish General's exploited this 'hot headedness' to draw the enemy out in pursuit of the Lithuanians, allowing Polish heavy cavalry to fall on the pursuers. See the pages on the battle of Tannenberg for more details on Lithuanian feigned retreats.
If the battlefield was unsuited for massed cavalry actions the Lithuanians would dismount and fight on foot with bows, often setting large ambushes. In the early period it was apparently customary for the Lithuanians to ride to the battlefield and then fight on foot. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle records one such attack on a Livonian Order raiding party where the Knights were attacked in a marsh by dismounted cavalry and 'cut down like women'.
Copyright © 2002 Matthew Haywood
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