gigatos | June 2, 2022


Mindaugas (in Belarusian: Міндоўг?, transliterated: Mindowh; in Polish: Mendog; c. 1200 – 1263) was the first grand duke of Lithuania and the only king to actually assume the office in Lithuanian history. Although most Lithuanian grand dukes from Jogaila onward also reigned as kings of Poland, the two titles remained separate.

Little is known about his origins, childhood, and rise to power; he is mentioned in a 1219 treatise along with the senior (or most influential) dukes of Lithuania, and in 1236 he is mentioned as the leader of all Lithuanians. Contemporary and modern sources focusing on his rise describe strategically contracted marriages, targeted exiles of possible opponents, and murders of his rivals. He extended his rule into the regions southeast of present-day Lithuania between 1230 and 1240. In 1250 or 1251, in the course of internal power struggles, he received baptism according to the Catholic rite; through this maneuver, he was able to seal an alliance with the Order of Livonia, a longtime opponent of the Lithuanians. During the summer of 1253 he was crowned king: at the height of his conquests, he exercised his rule over some 100,000 sq. km. of so-called Lithuania proper, an area populated by an estimated 300,000 inhabitants (270,000 of whom were in Lithuania alone). The lands of the Slavs in his possession or under his sphere of influence extended over another 100,000 km².

While his ten-year reign was marked by various successes in state-building, Mindaugas”s conflicts with his relatives and other dukes continued, and Samogitia (western Lithuania) strongly opposed the union. The cities conquered by Mindaugas in the southeast were raiding grounds for the Mongols on several occasions. The king broke peace with the Livonian order in 1261, perhaps even renouncing Christianity, and was assassinated in 1263 by his nephew Treniota in cahoots with another rival, Duke Dovmont of Pskov. Exactly like Mindaugas, his three successors also did not perish of natural death. The period of unrest unleashed at Mindaugas” death subsided only when Traidenis obtained the title of Grand Duke in about 1270.

Although historiographical opinion of his figure had not been benevolent in later centuries, partly because his descendants did not have great fortunes, Mindaugas was reevaluated during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today he is traditionally regarded as the founder of the Lithuanian state: he is also credited with halting the advance of the Tatars to the Baltic Sea, granting Lithuania international recognition, and enabling it to become known even in Western courts. In the 1990s, historian Edvardas Gudavičius published research in order to reconstruct an exact coronation date, given as July 6, 1253. Currently, “State Day” (Lithuanian: Valstybės diena) falls on that date in Lithuania.

Written sources coeval with Mindaugas are very scarce. Most of the available information about his reign has been extrapolated from the rhymed chronicle of Livonia and the Hypatian codex. Both works were written by non-Lithuanian writers and therefore provide a fairly negative assessment of him, especially the Hypatian Codex. These are, among other things, not entirely comprehensive writings: indeed, both omit pure dates and places for major events. For example, the rhymed chronicle of Livonia devotes 125 verses to the coronation of Mindaugas, but does not indicate either time or space. Other valuable sources are papal bulls concerning the baptism and coronation of Mindaugas. The Lithuanians did not produce any documents that have survived to this day, except for a series of acts granting lands to the Livonian order whose authenticity is disputed. The dearth of texts leaves unanswered several important questions that arise about Mindaugas and his reign.

Indeed, the reconstruction of its origins and a family tree has proved particularly problematic. The chronicle of Bychowiec, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, while narrating the lineage of Mindaugas, is believed to lack historical foundation. This is because it recounts the lineage of the Polemonids, a noble family that, according to the text, dated back to none other than the Roman Empire, more specifically to the time of Nero. A further mystery concerns his date of birth, sometimes given as around 1200. The rhymed chronicle of Livonia speaks of his father as a powerful duke (later chronicles give him the appellation Ryngold, son in turn of the equally legendary Algimantas. Dausprungas, mentioned in the text of a 1219 treaty concluded with the Principality of Galicia-Volinia, is presumed to have been his brother, while Dausprungas” sons, Tautvila and Edvydas, his nephews. He is thought to have had two sisters, one married to Vykintas and the other to Danilo of Galicia. Vykintas and his (possibly) son Treniota played key roles in later power struggles. Mindaugas married at least two wives: Morta and, later, Morta”s sister e, whose name turns out to be unknown. Equally unknown is whether he had a wife prior to Morta; his existence is presumed because two children-a son named Vaišvilkas and a daughter whose name is unknown, married to Švarnas in 1255-were already living independently while Morta”s children were still young. In addition to Vaišvilkas and his sister, two other sons, Ruklys and Rupeikis, are named. The latter two were murdered together with Mindaugas. In 1263 it is indicated that Mindaugas and two of his sons named Ruklys and Rupeikis were murdered. This is the only information available, and historians do not agree on their existence: it could be that there were actually four sons or that the name was distorted or wrongly transcribed by the scribes. The only people known to have claimed the crown after the assassination of the first Grand Duke are only Vaišvilkas and Tautvila; this would imply that regardless of whether there were two or four sons, in the second hypothesis Ruklys and Rupeikis had died in their youth.

In the 13th century Lithuania had few relations with foreign lands. Lithuanian names seemed obscure and unfamiliar to various chroniclers, who altered them to make them more similar to names in their native language. Mindaugas in historical texts were recorded in various distorted forms: among many, we note here Mindowe in Latin; Mindouwe, Myndow, Myndawe and Mindaw in German; Mendog, Mondog, Mendoch and Mindovg in Polish; Mindovg, Mindog and Mindowh in Ruthenian. Since Slavic sources provide most of the information about Mindaugas” life, they are judged the most reliable by linguists who reconstruct his original Lithuanian name. The most common indication in Rus” texts is Mindovg. In 1909 Lithuanian linguist Kazimieras Būga published an essay aimed at proving the existence of the suffix -as, a reconstruction widely accepted even today. Mindaugas is an archaic Lithuanian disyllabic name, omposed by min and daug, used before the Christianization of Lithuania. The etymon can be traced back to “daug menąs” (great wisdom) or “daugio minimas” (great fame).

He is believed to have originated in eastern Lithuania, the Aukštaitija.

Lithuania was ruled in the early 13th century by a vast series of dukes and princes who exercised their rule over various fiefdoms and different communities. The ties among these, though tenuous until the 13th century, were to be found in religious and folkloric, commercial, kinship, warfare, and the exchange of prisoners captured in the surrounding areas. Western merchants and missionaries began trying to subjugate the region since the city of Riga was built in Latvia in 1201. The Germans” campaigns in Lithuania were temporarily buffered by defeat at the Battle of Šiauliai in 1236, but the knightly orders (Teutonic Knights and Order of Livonia) continued to be a threat.

The treaty with Galicia-Volinia signed in 1219 is usually considered the first concrete evidence of the process of uniting the Baltic tribes, initiated in response to external threats. The signatories to the treaty were twenty Lithuanian dukes and a widowed duchess; five of these are mentioned first by virtue of their age (or influence), presumably because they enjoyed special privileges. Mindaugas, despite his young age, as well as his brother Dausprungas, is listed among the senior dukes, suggesting that he had already inherited titles. Mindaugas is listed as a ruler in the rhymed chronicle of Livonia as early as 1236, but there is a tendency to believe that the process of his assimilation and assumption of the office of leader of the Lithuanians took place fully in 1238. The means by which he managed to work his way into the Lithuanian ducal hierarchy are not well known. Russian chronicles refer to the killing and

During the 1230s and 1240s, Mindaugas strengthened and asserted his supremacy in various Baltic and Slavic lands. Wars in Eastern Europe multiplied; the duke fought against German forces in Courland, while the Mongols destroyed Kiev in 1240 and broke into Poland in 1241, defeating two Polish armies and burning Krakow. The Lithuanians first came into contact with the Mongols around 1237-1240: however, until 1250 or 1260 the Asians did not consider the territories inhabited by the Lithuanians a priority. The Lithuanian victory at the Battle of Šiauliai attributed to Vykintas, Duke of Samogizia and brother-in-law of Mindaugas, temporarily stabilized the northern front, but the Christian orders continued to gain ground along the Baltic coast, founding the city of Klaipėda (Memel). Simultaneous with the events that took place in the north and west of Lithuania, Mindaugas moved east and southeast, and conquered in the so-called Black Ruthenia Navahrudak (Novogrodok), Hrodna, Vaŭkavysk, Slonim, and the Principality of Polock: however, there is no reconstruction available that recounts the clashes that took place in those cities. There is little evidence to support this, but it is speculated that in 1246 the duke converted to the Orthodox faith in Navahrudak, but later, due to political circumstances, embraced Catholicism. In 1245 and

Tautvila, Edivydas and Vykintas formed a powerful coalition with the Samogites, the Livonian order, Danilo of Galicia (brother-in-law of Edivydas and Tautvila) and Vasilko of Volinia against Mindaugas. Only the Poles, despite Danilo”s suggestion, refused to take part in the coalition. The dukes of Galicia and Volinia managed to retake Black Ruthenia, a region ruled by Mindaugas” son Vaišvilkas. Tautvila meanwhile went to Riga, where he received baptism from the archbishop. Besieged from north and south and with the risk of unrest breaking out elsewhere, Mindaugas was in an extremely difficult position: however, he was able to exploit the contrasts between the Livonian order, the most formidable enemy, and the archbishop of Riga for his own interests. Indeed, he managed to bribe Andreas von Stirland, grand master of the order, who was still irate with Vykintas for the defeat he had suffered in 1236. It is likely to assume that he had to send several gifts, such as horses and precious metals.

In 1251, Mindaugas agreed to receive the sacrament of baptism and relinquish control over some lands in western Lithuania in exchange for the crown. Pope Innocent IV hoped that Christian Lithuania would thwart the Mongol threat; from his perspective, Mindaugas hoped for papal intervention in the ongoing Lithuanian conflicts with the Christian orders. On July 17, 1251, the pontiff signed two crucial bulls. One of them ordered the bishop of Chełmno to crown Mindaugas as king of Lithuania, appoint a bishop for Lithuania, and build a cathedral. The other specified that the new prelate should be directly subordinate to the Holy See, rather than to the archdiocese of Riga. The two acts were viewed favorably by the Lithuanians, as closer control by the pope would have prevented longtime antagonists, the Knights of Livonia or the diocese of Riga, from taking over the reins of the state and making it a de facto puppet.

The coronation process and the installation of Christian institutions took two years. Internal conflicts persisted; Tautvila and allies still on his side attacked Mindaugas at Voruta in the spring-summer of 1251, a settlement whose exact location has been debated for centuries, which was perhaps the first capital of Lithuania. At least sixteen different locations have been proposed, including Kernavė and Vilnius. Archaeological research in 1990-2001 on the hill fort at Šeiminyškėliai, located in the district municipality of Anykščiai between Anykščiai and Svėdasai, confirmed the idea that the site, of all those subjected to archaeological investigation, is the one that is in some way most attributable to Voruta. Currently, it turns out to be one of the most studied hills in Lithuania. The attempt to oust him failed, and Tautvila”s forces retreated to defend themselves in the castle of Tviremet (this may have been Tverai, in the present-day municipality of Rietavas). Vykintas died in about 1253, and Tautvila found himself forced to take refuge with Danilo of Galicia. Danilo made peace with Mindaugas in 1254, and it is interesting to note that the prince of Galicia-Volinia was in negotiations with Rome at the same time in history to also obtain a crown; the lands of Black Ruthenia were ceded to Roman Danilovič, son of Danilo. Vaišvilkas, son of Mindaugas, decided to become a monk. Tautvilkas recognized Mindaugas” supremacy and received Polack as a fiefdom.

As promised, Mindaugas and his wife Morta were crowned during the summer of 1253: neither the exact date nor the place where it took place is known. Two of his sons and some members of his court were also baptized; this confirmation came from a letter written by Innocent IV. Bishop Henry Heidenreich of Kulm presided over the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and Grand Master Andreas von Stirland conferred the crown. July 6 is celebrated in Lithuania today as “State Day” (Lithuanian: Valstybės diena), according to a reconstruction by Edvardas Gudavičius. The constitution of the kingdom sealed the international recognition of the state by the Western Christian powers.

Peace and stability persisted for about eight more years. Mindaugas used this opportunity to focus on expanding eastward. He strengthened his influence in Black Ruthenia, Pinsk, and took advantage of the collapse of Kievan Rus to subdue Polack, an important trading site on the Daugava River. He negotiated a peace with Galicia-Volynia and gave one of his daughters in marriage to Švarnas, son of Danilo of Galicia, who would later become Grand Duke of Lithuania. Diplomatic relations with Western Europe and the Holy See were also increased. In 1255, Mindaugas received permission from Pope Alexander IV to crown his son as King of Lithuania. On domestic policy, Mindaugas attempted to establish state institutions, namely his own royal court, administrative apparatuses, a diplomatic service, and a monetary system. On this last point, it was the so-called Lithuanian long silver coin (Lithuanian: Lietuvos ilgieji) that circulated and in time gave a semblance of state currency.

Immediately after his coronation, Mindaugas handed over some western possessions to the Livonians-portions of Samogitia and Nadruvia. It is not known with certainty whether any cessions occurred in the following years (1255, 1257, 1259, 1261). Although they appear, they may have been artificially attested by the Order: such a reconstruction is supported by the fact that some of the documents found mention lands that were never under Mindaugas rule. But they could also be lands intentionally donated by the Lithuanian since he was aware that those places were under his management, using a modern term, only de jure. Further irregularities were found on the treaty witnesses and the seal.

Having overcome the hostilities tearing Lithuania apart from within, Mindaugas could concentrate on the aforementioned military campaigns to the east. His army was put to the test in 1258 or 1259, when Berke sent his general Burundai to attack the kingdom, ordering Danilo of Galicia and other regional princes to participate. The earliest chronicle of Novgorod relates that the Mongol incursion of Lithuania in the years 1258-1259 ended in victory for the Golden Horde: indeed, the sources speak of the devastation caused by the Asians and of what was “probably the most horrible event of the 13th century” for Lithuanian history.

In 1252 Mindaugas did not oppose the Livonian order”s construction of Klaipėda Castle. The knights, despite the alliance, retained some rancor. Local merchants were allowed to conduct transactions only through intermediaries approved by the order, and the rules on testamentary procedures were changed in favor of the rulers in case of the absence of heirs. The subjects of the knights rose up, as evidenced by the Battle of Skuodas (1259) and the Battle of Durbe (1260), both won by the Samogites, led by an elected commander a few years earlier named Alminas. The first defeat caused a rebellion by the Semigallians, while the second spurred the Prussians to unleash what would become known as the Great Revolt, which lasted for 14 years.

Having ascertained the situation, the ambitious new duke of Samogitia Treniota, perhaps the son of Vykintas and therefore Mindaugas” nephew, suggested to his uncle that the Germans should strike while they were still weak. Treniota relayed the words of his messengers, who reported there were droves of Latvians and Livonians ready to re-embrace paganism as soon as they were freed from the Teutonic. The pro-Christians frowned on Threotius” plans, so much so that Queen Morta, a very pious woman according to sources, disdainfully compared the duke of Samogitia to a monkey.

Mindaugas trusted his nephew and the aids he referred to and therefore decided to fight by denying Christianity. Some of the pagan practices had not gone away, such as the case of mixed marriages. It is inferred that the conversion was for political purposes only: according to the chronicles, he would never stop secretly practicing pagan rites. In any case, it should not be forgotten that the available sources were compiled by opponents of the Lithuanians. All diplomatic achievements made after the coronation were lost. Mindaugas personally led attacks in various centers of Latvia, the most important of which was aimed at acquiring Cēsis, the site of a mighty fortification. While Treniota succeeded in prevailing with his warriors further south, in the regions bordering the Vistula River (Mazovia, Kulm, and Pomesania), Mindaugas became furious at not receiving the hoped-for assistance from the Livonians, at trusting his nephew without careful thought, and at the inconsistency of the maneuvers of his ally Aleksandr Nevsky, prince of Novgorod.

Mindaugas began to ponder the advisability of not continuing his close relationship with his nephew. The victorious campaigns had undoubtedly made the latter the most celebrated duke of Lithuania, even though in hereditary legitimation the crown would fall to one of the king”s sons. The conditions for a profound dualism with the duke of Samogitia were all there.

When and whether Mindaugas Cathedral was built remains another mystery: new blood may be generated by recent archaeological research, which was decisive in uncovering the remains of a 13th-century brick building on the site of the present Vilnius Cathedral. Whether it was the religious building under discussion or not is unknown. Even when it was actually built, it was merely a complacency to fulfill the agreement with the pope: Lithuanian nobles and others opposed Christianization, and the baptism of Mindaugas had a temporary impact.

When Morta passed away in 1262, the king of Lithuania decided to hold a wedding with Dovmont of Pskov”s wife, thus taking her away from her rightful husband. This decision gave rise to intentions of revenge. Mindaugas finally decided to openly oppose Treniota: it is not known whether the decision was made on the basis of the following fact or not, but contemporary sources tell of secret meetings attended by Treniota in which they discussed how to depose the incumbent ruler.

The ideal opportunity presented itself in 1263: Mindaugas had sent his troops led by Dovmont to Bryansk, while Treniota was in Samogitia. Dovmont abandoned the army and on the way back (Mindaugas had accompanied the soldiers up to a certain point) met and killed his target and some of his sons. Probably the guards following the king were bribed in advance. Vaišvilkas, the most mature of the papal heirs, was in the Pinsk monastery and fled there as soon as he heard the news. According to a late medieval tradition, the assassination took place in Aglona.

Mindaugas was buried according to pagan customs along with his horses after a lavish funeral.

An interesting comment to note on Mindaugas” death is that of Pope Clement IV. The pontiff expressed regret for her murder in 1268 by writing “the happy memory of Mindaugas” (clare memorie Mindota).

Soon after Mindaugas Tautvila, one of the late king”s two grandsons who participated in the clashes in Voruta a decade earlier, was killed, he was fraudulently assassinated after being invited to Samogitia with a promise from Treniota to protect him from any popular uprisings. The conspiracy to gain power could at that point be said to be complete. Lithuania entered a period of internal instability, but the Grand Duchy did not disintegrate. However, the foundation on which it stood was fragile: only a year later than its establishment, in 1264, Treniota was killed by Mindaugas”s old servants and Lithuania passed into the hands of Vaišvilkas, the eldest son of the Lithuanian king supported by his brother-in-law Švarnas of Volinia. The first ruler to ensure greater prosperity for Lithuania and the first in the history of the Grand Duchy to die of natural causes was Traidenis, who came to power in 1270 under obscure circumstances.

What saved Lithuania from its dissolution was due to a number of circumstances. The main one was certainly the fragility of the neighboring states at that moment in history: Prussian revolts kept the Teutonic Knights and those of Livonia busy until about 1290. Principalities to the east and south of the Grand Duchy often clashed with each other, and the greatest threat, the Principality of Galicia-Volinia, was escaped through strategic marriages or peace treaties.

Although he is credited today with establishing the Lithuanian state, the figure of Mindaugas never received much attention in Lithuanian historiography until the national revival of the 19th century. While sympathizers to paganism despised him for betraying his religion, Christians felt his conversion had been insincere. He is sometimes mentioned in passing by Grand Duke Gediminas, while he is not mentioned at all by Vitoldo the Great. Genealogical interest in him ends with his sons; no historical records deal with the connection between his descendants and the Gediminid dynasty that ruled Lithuania and Poland until 1572. A 17th-century rector of Vilnius University held him responsible for the problems later experienced by the Polish-Lithuanian Confederation (“the seed of internal discord had been sown among the Lithuanians”). A 20th-century historian blamed him for the “interruption of the process of Lithuanian state formation.” The first academically conducted investigation of his life by a Lithuanian scholar was by Jonas Totoraitis in 1905 (Die Litauer unter dem König Mindowe bis zum Jahre 1263). In the 1990s historian Edvardas Gudavičius published his findings indicating a date of the coronation, which later became a national holiday. The 750th anniversary of her coronation was celebrated in 2003 with the dedication of a bridge at Mindaugas near Vilnius, numerous festivals and concerts, and official visits by other heads of state. In Belarus, the legendary Mindaugas Hill near Navahrudak has been identified: it is mentioned by Adam Mickiewicz in his 1828 novel Konrad Wallenrod. A memorial stone was placed on Mindaugas Hill in 1993 and a metal sculpture of Mindaugas in 2014.

Mindaugas is the main subject of Juliusz Słowacki”s 1829 drama Mindowe, one of the Three Bards. It has also been portrayed in several 20th-century literary works: the tragedy Vara (Power, 1944) by Latvian author Mārtiņš Zīverts, Justinas Marcinkevičius”s dramatic poem Mindaugas (1968), Romualdas Granauskas”s Jaučio aukojimas (The Offering of the Bull, 1975), and Juozas Kralikauskas”s Mindaugas (1995). Mindaugas” acquisition of the crown and the creation of the Grand Duchy form the main kernel of the 2002 Belarusian novel The Spear of Alhierd by Volha Ipatava, published ahead of the 750th anniversary of the coronation.

In 1992 Lithuanian director Juozas Sabolius dedicated the film Valdžia to the figure of Mindaugas.



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