Vytautas

Summary

Vitold (in Belarusian: Вітаўт? transliterated: Vitaŭt; in Ruthenian: Vitovt; in Latin: Alexander Vitoldus; in High German protomodern: Wythaws or Wythawt (Senieji Trakai, c. 1350 – Trakai, October 27, 1430) was Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1401 to 1430, as well as having held in his lifetime the office of Prince of Grodno (1370-1382), of Luc”k (1387-1389) and Duke of Trakai. He was also offered the crown by the Hussites, but he refused.

He is considered the most influential Lithuanian ruler of the Middle Ages and is still considered a national hero in Lithuania. Vytautas is also a popular male name in Lithuania. In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of his death, the newly founded Vitoldo Magno University was named after him. Monuments in his honor exist in many cities in independent Lithuania of the interwar period (1918-1940). Vitoldo expressed himself in the Lithuanian language when relating to his cousin Jogaila, king of Poland since 1386.

1377-1384

Vitoldo”s uncle, Algirdas, was Grand Duke of Lithuania until his death in 1377. Algirdas and Vitoldo”s father, Kęstutis, governed together creating a sort of duumvirate: Algirdas administered the territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the east and Kęstutis those in the west, the areas subject to frequent attacks of the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights. Algirdas was succeeded by his son Jogaila and a struggle for power ensued: in 1380, Jogaila signed the secret treaty of Dovydiškės with the Teutonic order in order to fight against Kęstutis. When the latter found out in 1381, he conquered Vilnius, imprisoned Jogaila and appointed himself Grand Duke. However, Jogaila managed to escape and set up an army against Kęstutis, although the two counterparts never fought on a battlefield. Shortly before this eventuality occurred, Kęstutis went to negotiate together with Vitoldo from Jogaila, but Jogaila arrested them and transferred them to Krėva Castle. A week later, Kęstutis died and it is uncertain whether he died of natural causes or because he was murdered.

In 1382 Vitoldo fled from Krėva disguising himself in women”s clothes and went to the monastic state seeking the support of the Teutonic order, at that time in negotiations with Jogaila for the signing of the Treaty of Dubysa, by which the Lithuanian king promised to accept Christianity, become an ally of the order and surrender to the Crusaders part of Samogitia up to the Dubysa river. However, the treaty was never ratified and in the summer of 1383 hostilities resumed between Jogaila and the knights. In the meantime, Vitoldo received the sacrament of baptism according to the Orthodox rite and received the name of Wigand (in Lithuanian: Vygandas). Vitoldo participated in several raids against his cousin Jogaila. In January 1384, Vitoldo promised to surrender part of Samogitia to the Teutonic order, up to the Nevėžis river in exchange for his recognition as Grand Duke of Lithuania. However, in July of the same year, the Lithuanian decided to break relations with the Teutonic and reconciled with Jogaila; he participated in the burning of three important castles garrisoned by the Germans and reconquered all the lands administered by Kęstutis, with the exception of Trakai.

1385-1392

In 1385, Jogaila concluded the union of Krewo with Poland, thanks to which he married the young Hedwig and acquired the crown, becoming from then on known as Ladislaus II Jagellon (Władysław II Jagiełło). Vitoldo participated in the union ceremony and in 1386 was baptized a second time as a Catholic, receiving the name Alexander (Aleksandras).

Ladislaus II left his brother Skirgaila as regent in Lithuania. Noting the unpopularity of Skirgaila and strong support of part of the Lithuanian nobility, Vitoldo took the opportunity to become grand duke. In 1389, he attacked Vilnius but failed and at the beginning of 1390 he decided to ally himself again with the Teutonic order by signing the Treaty of Königsberg (1390). Vitoldo had to reiterate the contents of the agreement of 1384 and surrender Samogizia. Around that time, in order to gain more influence, Vitoldo married his only daughter Sofia to Basil I of Russia in 1391.

The Polish nobles were very unhappy with their new king spending so much time on Lithuanian affairs, and it also seemed clear that the war that broke out in 1390 would bring no benefit to Poland. In 1392, Ladislaus II sent Henry of Masovia with an offer to appoint Vitoldo in place of Skirgaila: the former accepted and reneged a second time the alliance with the Teutonic despite the guarantees asked by them burning three Teutonic castles before returning to Vilnius. Ladislaus II and his cousin signed the Treaty of Astrava by which Vitoldo recovered all the lands of Kęstutis, including Trakai, becoming duke, plus other fiefs. Vitoldo would rule Lithuania in the name of Ladislaus, recognizing his authority as “supreme duke”. After Vitoldo”s death, it was expected that the lands in his possession and the powers vested in him would revert to the Polish king.

Policy towards the East

Vitoldo continued the campaign started by Algirdas to control as many Ruthenian lands as possible. Much of the geographical region was already under the rule of Lithuania, but there were still some lands under the Mongols. Toktamish, Khan of the Golden Horde, asked Vitoldo for support when he lost his throne in 1395 after losing it to Tamerlane. The Lithuanian was willing to reach a military agreement with Toktamish, provided that the latter would cede part of Ruthenia once he ascended the throne. In 1398, the army of Vitoldo arrived in Crimea and built there a fortification: it was at that time that Lithuania came close to reach the height of its conquests, overlooking both the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. An unspecified number of Tatar prisoners arrived forcibly in Lithuania Propria.

Continued attempts by Poland to subordinate Lithuania prompted Vitoldo to make a third attempt to ingratiate himself with the order with the Treaty of Salynas in October 1398. In it, the grand duke then known as Supremus Dux Lithuaniae, effectively handed over Samogitia to the knights and joined them to fight at Pskov and Velikij Novgorod, then forcing them to pay large tributes.

Thanks to his victorious campaign against Tamerlane, Vitoldo and Ladislaus II obtained the support of Pope Boniface IX because they were believed to have initiated a crusade against the Mongols. Such a conclusion by the pontiff suggests that Rome had finally accepted the idea that the last state in Europe had finally accepted Christianity and was able to defend the new faith on its own. In theory, the Teutonic knights no longer had any motivation to continue their centuries-old battle against Lithuania. However, the campaign against the Golden Horde ended in a resounding defeat at the battle of the Vorskla River in 1399: more than twenty princes, including two of Ladislaus” brothers, were killed and Vitoldo himself barely escaped alive. It was a clash that had unexpected repercussions in Lithuania and Poland, leading to the rebellion of several cities against Vitoldo. As reported in fact by Zenonas Norkus, taking up in turn Adshead:

Smolensk, recaptured by its hereditary ruler Juri, and not recaptured by the Lithuanians until 1404, deserves special mention. Vitoldo declared war in 1406-1408 against his son-in-law Basil I of Russia, and Švitrigaila, a brother of Ladislaus who aimed to become Grand Duke of Lithuania, secured the support of the Teutonic order by declaring himself Grand Prince. An important clash between the two armies ended without a battle with the understanding of Ugra, by which Velikij Novgorod was assigned to the brother of Ladislaus II Lengvenis, and the important city of Pskov to the ambassador of Jogaila Jerzy Nos, constituting a clear violation of the peace of Raciąż. The war with Muscovy ended in December 1408, on terms that made further conflict with the Teutonic order inevitable, despite the attempt of Hermann II of Celje to negotiate a peaceful solution.

Wars against the Teutonic Order

With the Treaty of Salynas, as mentioned, Vitoldo had transferred Samogitia to the Teutonic Knights: the region was particularly important for the order located in Prussia because it separated it from the Knights of Livonia, located in today”s Latvia and Estonia. The two religious groups wished to unite territorially and form a powerful coalition. However, the knights only held Samogitia for three years, as on March 13, 1401, the Samogitians, supported by Vytautas, rebelled and burned two castles. The knights received the support of Švitrigaila, the brother of Ladislaus who wished to assume the title of grand duke. In 1404 the peace of Raciąż was signed, which in essence repeated the contents of the Salynas agreement: Samogizia would remain in Teutonic hands. Poland officially declared that it was not willing to support Lithuania in case of another war. Although the knights promised to support Vitoldo in his campaigns to the east and not to consider legitimate the claims of the Gediminides who claimed the title of Grand Duke of Lithuania, the disagreements were not completely resolved.

In 1408, Vitoldo ended his conquering activities in today”s Belarus and returned to the question of Samogitia. In 1409 a second Samogitian revolt against the Teutonic knights, guilty of imposing new tributes, took place, as soon as the rebels burned down the castle of Skirsnemunė (a settlement not far from today”s Lithuanian-Russian border). Letters of protest from the people of Lower Lithuania, aimed at pointing out the oppressive attitudes of the order, reached the curia as well as numerous courts of European princes and the guilds of important Western European cities. Vitoldo candidly supported the second insurrection, as did Ladislaus II from Poland. Open support for the rebellion in a territory claimed by the order prompted Hochmeister Ulrich von Jungingen to spur the parties to resolve the issue on a battlefield. On August 6, 1409 von Jungingen had his herald take the challenge sign to the king of Poland in his name and that of the order. This action marked the beginning of the Grossen Streythe (great quarrel) which in the terminology of the Teutonic represented the war against the Poles and the Lithuanians.

The order invaded first of all the Great Poland and conquered several castles: ascertained the situation, in the autumn of 1409 an armistice was negotiated with the mediation of the German Roman Emperor Wenceslas of Luxembourg. The following year, July 15, 1410, took place one of the most important battles of the late Middle Ages for the fate of Eastern Europe; from the clash, passed into history as the Battle of Tannenberg (Polish historians call it the Battle of Grunwald, while the Lithuanians the Teutonic knights came out soundly defeated and since then entered in a slow but irreversible crisis. In spite of the great position of advantage, Ladislaus II, at the head of men who had come from Galicia, Volinia, Podolia and Polesia, hesitated and did not strike the decisive blow at Marienburg in a rapid manner, giving his opponents time to be able to defend themselves in their own stronghold in an unscathed manner.

With the Treaty of Toruń in 1411, the Teutonic Order had to renounce Samogitia and had to make considerable reparations to rebuild the razed fortifications and religious buildings. Finally, the monastic state also renounced to make new incursions into Lithuania, in the meantime largely converted to Christianity because of the Polish influence: the Teutonic managed thanks to Sigismund of Hungary to obtain less onerous conditions than expected. Precisely because of the disruptive effects caused by the defeat of the Germans, some authors consider the Lithuanian crusade ended after the battle of Grunwald.

From that point on, the union between Poland and Lithuania began to be perceived in Europe as a great power, arousing great interest in Vitoldo”s policies from the Roman curia.

When the new Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen opposed the arbitration ruling of the imperial envoy Benedikt Makrai in 1413, who had assigned the right bank of the Memel to the Grand Duchy, he was deposed by Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg. The new governor sought peace with Poland and was well aware of the fragility of the state at that time. However, when he too rejected Makrai”s arbitration decision, the Poles invaded Warmian territory as part of the Hunger War of 1414: having been defeated, von Sternberg renounced his claims.

This was followed by truces extended several times by various conflict mediators, which turned out to be extremely costly for the Teutonic, since they were weakened both by past wars and by reparations. They had to conduct costly negotiations at the Council of Constance, as well as justify their assaults, and later elsewhere, but the situation became so dangerous at the financial level that they had to make cuts in expenditure in the field of warfare (unique if you think of the investments of the monastic state in previous centuries). Only in 1422 were the borders with Lithuania finally established with the Treaty of Melno. The demarcation would remain unchanged for about 500 years and until the dispute over the territory of Memel in 1923. With peace restored, Vitoldo was able to concentrate on the reforms to be carried out in Lithuania and on relations with Poland.

The conversion of Samogitia, which was then back in the hands of the Grand Duchy, was quite problematic because of the deep-rooted old beliefs and the first decisive steps were taken only at the end of 1413, two years after the turbulent period of conflicts of the previous years. In November 1413, Vitoldo himself sailed on the Nemunas and Dubysa rivers in order to reach the surroundings of Betygala, where he supervised the baptism of the first groups of Samogites for a week. In 1416 the construction of the first eight parish churches began, the first of which was completed in Medininkai around 1464. The Diocese of Samogitia was officially born on October 23, 1417, and Matthias of Trakai became the first bishop in northwestern Lithuania.

Vitoldo spent about four years with the Teutonic order during the Civil War, having the opportunity to study the architecture of German castles and adopt some of their elements in his residence in Vilnius. Indeed, he chose to make the capital a more prosperous and safer commercial center. During his reign, the upper castle of the city complex underwent the most extensive restoration. After a great fire in 1419, Vitoldo encouraged the construction of several service buildings in the complex and the destroyed part of the fortification. The remains visible today date back to this period.

Diplomatic relations with Poland

On June 22, 1399, Hedwig of Poland and wife of Ladislaus gave birth to a baby girl, baptized Elizabeth Boniface, but she died within a month as did her mother. Many believed that the king had therefore lost his right to the crown with Hedwig”s death, but there were no other known heirs to the ancient Polish monarchs – all potential competitors, previously in large numbers, were but distant relatives in Lesser Poland, and although Jogaila had to face opposition from time to time, his status as king was more or less always accepted de jure and de facto even by the newly emerging aristocracy, that of Greater Poland. Moreover, the defeat at Vorskla forced a reassessment of the relationship between Poland and Lithuania. The Union of Vilnius and Radom in 1401 confirmed Vitoldo”s role as grand duke under Ladislaus”s rule, ensuring the title of sovereign of Lithuania to Ladislaus”s heirs rather than Vitoldo”s: if Ladislaus had died without heirs, the Lithuanian boyars would have had to elect a new monarch. Since neither of the cousins had any children yet, the implications of the pact were unpredictable: nevertheless, synergies were created between the Lithuanian and Polish nobility (szlachta) and a permanent defensive alliance between the two states, thus strengthening Lithuania”s position in a further war against the Teutonic order, in which Poland did not officially participate. The unique feature of this union was that the Lithuanian nobility presented their own document: for the first time someone other than the grand dukes had a prominent role in state affairs.

Vitoldo was one of the supporters and creators of the Horodło Union of 1413: according to the act, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would preserve a grand duke free to rule in multiple spheres and its own parliament. At the same time, both the Polish and Lithuanian Sejm would discuss all major issues together. The event was culturally and politically fundamental because it granted the Lithuanian Christian nobles the same rights as the Polish szlachta, as well as the Orthodox nobles. This opened the way to more contacts and cooperation between the aristocracy of the two realities.

In January 1429, at the Congress of Luc”k at the proposal of Sigismund, King of Hungary, it was suggested that Vitoldo be crowned as King of Lithuania. This caused a major crisis between the Lithuanian ruler, his cousin Ladislaus and the Polish nobles. Vitoldo accepted the offer of the crown, apparently with the tacit approval of Ladislaus, but Polish forces intercepted the transport at the border between Poland and Lithuania and the coronation was cancelled. This was the first attempt to restore the monarchy in Lithuania since Mindaugas.

Reforms and death

Vitoldo encouraged the economic development of his state and introduced various reforms. Under his rule, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania gradually became more centralized, as local princes with dynastic ties to the throne were replaced by governors loyal to Vitoldo: nevertheless, one should not make the mistake of considering Vitoldo as the visionary forerunner of a unitary state. The persons named were often wealthy landowners who formed the core of the Lithuanian nobility. During his rule, the influential Radvila (Radziwiłł) and Goštautas families embarked on their path of ascendancy.

In 1398, Vitoldo spurred the families of the Karaites (388 groups) and Tatar peoples to settle in Lithuania. The main role they were assigned was to protect castles and bridges, but they also worked as translators, farmers, traders and diplomats. A celebration of the Tatar community towards the ruler took place in 1930 in the Kenesa of Vilnius, on the anniversary of his death.

Vitoldo died in the castle of Trakai in 1430, almost forty years after his rise to power. His body was buried in the cathedral in Vilnius, but his remains were lost. Since he left no heirs, a struggle soon broke out that resulted in civil war.

Born in 1350 in the castle of Senieji Trakai, Vitoldo was the son of Kęstutis and his wife Birutė. He was also a cousin and childhood friend of Jogaila, king of Poland in 1386. Around 1370 he married Anna, who gave birth to a girl named Sofia. She then married Basil I, Grand Prince of Moscow, and mother and regent on behalf of his son Basil II. After Anna”s death in 1418, Vitoldo married his niece Uliana Olshanska, daughter of Ivan Olshanski who lived until 1448. Because of the consanguineous relationship between the two not-yet-married couple, the bishop of Vilnius was not willing to perform the ceremony without a papal dispensation; however, Jan Kropidło, archbishop of Gniezno, had no such qualms and married them anyway on November 13, 1418. According to the 16th-century chronicle of Bychowiec, his first wife was a certain Maria Łukomska, although this information is not confirmed by any other source.

Vytautas appears in several works of fiction dealing with the Polish-Lithuanian conflict with the Teutonic order. He appears in the narrative poem Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz and was later played by Józef Kostecki in the 1960 film The Teutonic Knights, an adaptation of a novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

In 2014, a short animation was produced by “Four Directions of Fairy Tales” (Cztery Strony Bajek) in association with the Association of Polish Karaites, which deals with the story of the Karaites under Vytautas and the ruler”s magic horse. The voiceovers have been translated into several languages, including Carimo, Polish, English and Lithuanian.

In the video game Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, Vitoldo appears among the available characters of the cavalry heroes.

Sources

  1. Vitoldo
  2. Vytautas