The Duchy of Prussia (German: Herzogtum Preußen, Polish Księstwo w Prusach), or ducal Prussia (herzogliches Preußen, Prusy Książęce), was a hereditary territorial principality vassal of the king of Poland, founded in 1525 during the secularization of the Teutonic state by its grandmaster Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach, the first prince in Europe to formally embrace Lutheranism as the religion of his state.
In 1618, the duchy of Prussia fell to the elector of Brandenburg John III Sigismund, of the house of Hohenzollern like Albert. Thus was realized a personal union of the two territories (Brandenburg-Prussia), which is the foundation of the Prussian kingdom of the 18th century.
The war between Poland and the Teutonic Order (1519-1521)
The Teutonic Knights have long been considered enemies by Poland, which inflicted a severe defeat on them in 1410 at Grunwald. A little later, Poland succeeded in seizing the western part of the Teutonic territories (Royal Prussia, around Danzig), following an agreement with the population in revolt against the order (Prussian League).
The election of Albert of Brandenburg-Ansbach as the thirty-seventh Grand Master, after the death of Frederick of Saxony in 1510, caused a return of tensions with Poland, although he was the nephew, through his mother Sophie Jagellon, of King Sigismund I. He refused all allegiance to Poland, even going so far as to ally himself with the Moscow Grand Prince Vasily III, whose troops had invaded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He refused any allegiance to Poland, even going so far as to ally himself with the Grand Prince of Moscow Vasily III, whose troops had invaded the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. He then claimed the return of Royal Prussia to the Teutonic Order.
In December 1519, the Diet of the Kingdom of Poland voted to recognize a state of war with the Teutonic Order. Hostilities began in 1520: Polish troops laid siege to Marienwerder, while the Teutonics, reinforced by mercenaries, counterattacked and laid siege to Danzig. The conflict became bogged down due to a lack of resources on both sides.
In 1521, Emperor Charles V requested the suspension of war in Prussia, since the Turks had invaded Hungary. An armistice was signed at Thorn (Toruń) on April 5, 1521. A four-year truce was established, after which the emperor and the king of Poland would agree on the status of Teutonic Prussia.
The Grand Master will take advantage of these four years of respite to make a radical change.
The conversion of Albert of Brandenburg to Lutheranism (1524-1525)
Germany was then in the midst of a religious crisis. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, condemning many practices of the Catholic Church. This text, circulated in Germany, caused a great controversy, the main stages of which were: Luther’s refusal to recant (Luther’s public destruction of this bull); his banishment from the Empire (his shelter in Wartburg Castle by the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III); and his return to Wittenberg in early 1524. Luther received not only the support of this prince and others, but also popular support in Germany. Very quickly a Lutheran camp was formed, ready to oppose the emperor; this camp was formalized in 1531 by the league of Smalkalde. Albert of Brandenburg joined this camp at the beginning of the 1520s, and even became an important part of it.
Traveling through the Holy Roman Empire in search of support for his Polish policy, the Grand Master rubbed shoulders with the main supporters of the Reformation: he went in particular to Wittenberg, where Luther urged him first to allow the marriage of clerics belonging to the order, and then to complete the process of secularization of the order, which had been underway since the 1460s. After this meeting, the two men kept up an ongoing correspondence.
In 1524, Albert brought Luther’s relatives to Königsberg.
In 1525, he converted to Lutheranism and entered into negotiations with the King of Poland.
The Treaty of Krakow with Poland (April 8, 1525)
The negotiations led to the Treaty of Krakow, signed on April 8, 1525, which is also the peace treaty legally ending the war of 1519.
Albert of Brandenburg obtained the agreement of the king of Poland for his conversion to the Lutheran religion and especially to secularize the Teutonic State as a hereditary duchy, in return for the recognition of the suzerainty of the kingdom of Poland over this new entity. The state of vassal of the duke of Prussia is formalized legally by a tribute. A clause foresees the return of the Prussian rights and territories to Poland in case of extinction of the male line of the Duke of Prussia.
This vassalage implies a possibility of intervention of the king of Poland in the political life of the duchy; indeed, he represents a recourse for the discontented and, until the middle of the XVIIth century, he sometimes succeeds in imposing his jurisdiction of appeal to successive dukes.
Moreover, many noble families were owned in both Prussia and Poland, and the frequent wars in which Poland was involved offered Prussian nobles an opportunity for a military career in the Polish army.
Political consequences of the secularization of the Teutonic order
The agreement of 1525 led to the separation of the Livonian order, an autonomous order within the Teutonic order which governed the territories east of the Baltic Sea (present-day Estonia and Latvia). The members of the Livonian order did not follow the Grand Master in his conversion to Lutheranism (the secularization of the Livonian order took place only a few years later).
Albert of Brandenburg was summoned to appear before the Court of Justice of the Holy Roman Empire, but did not show up. He was thus banished from the Empire, but this was of no more importance to him than to Luther.
The secularization of the goods of the order
He then undertook, on the advice of Luther, the secularization of the territory of which he became the duke.
Secularization did not bring about major economic and social change, as the former Teutonic commanders and their subordinates retained their position in the social hierarchy once they had converted.
The duke, a major beneficiary of the secularization of ecclesiastical property, owned 48% of the arable land in the entire duchy in the 16th century.
A Lutheran State
Lutheran Protestantism became the state religion with the Commandment of Reformation of July 6, 1525.
On December 10 of the same year, the Diet of Königsberg published the Ecclesiastical Regulations (Kirchenordnung), which were to apply within the new territorial Church of the Duchy of Prussia.
The conversion of the population at the instigation of the duke avoided large-scale social upheavals such as a peasant revolt, and ensured great continuity among the religious personnel in place in the duchy: the bishops, for example, secularized the diocese for which they were responsible.
The University of Königsberg (1544)
Moreover, in 1544, a Lutheran university was founded in Königsberg, whose organization was in accordance with the recommendations of Philip Melanchthon. This university provided the duchy with an influence that was out of all proportion to its real political importance: in fact, the Prussian university was the second Protestant university in terms of its founding date, and it ensured the cultural influence of the duchy in Poland; a certain number of Polish and Lithuanian nobles sent their children there, and it also ensured the development of printing in Northern Europe. The good relations with Luther are symbolized by the fact that the son of the reformer came to the new university in Königsberg to study theology.
A majority of the population is in favor of the Reformation
After 1525, the dukes organized the conversion of their subjects to Lutheranism, the latter being required to have the same religion as their duke.
Lutheranism quickly met with great success and conversions multiplied among the population.
The massive character of these conversions had an unexpected consequence: the Prussian duke saw the influence of his duchy grow among the inhabitants of Royal Prussia, a territory annexed during the 15th century to Poland.
The Grand Master, Albert of Hohenzollern-Ansbach, created for himself the title of Duke of Prussia.
As a newly created Duke, Albert had to face at first the Polish hostility, having refused the homage due to the king of Poland.
The first dukes
The first years of Albert of Brandenburg’s reign were prosperous. Facing the peasantry, the lands and treasures of the Church allowed him to maintain a sumptuous court. He encouraged the promotion of learning by creating schools in every town of the duchy, freed the serfs, and had the Protestant catechism printed in German. In 1544, despite opposition, he created the Albertina University in Königsberg.
However, this policy aroused the opposition of the Prussian orders, which then sought the support of the suzerain of Albert, in particular with regard to its religious policy.
However, religious and political conflicts within the kingdom quickly took their toll on Albert of Brandenburg’s health and he was forced to give up power. His son Albert-Frédéric was still a minor, so he had to choose a regent. Once he came of age, the duke had to deal with the orders and the Poles, whose successive kings had family ties with the Prussian dukes.
Albert died of the plague in Tapiau on March 20, 1568. Albert-Frédéric succeeded him; having received a good education, he was however affected by a deep mental illness, and died on June 27, 1618 without a male heir.
Quickly after the erection of the duchy, the powers were organized according to an institutional triangle formed by the Polish suzerain, the Prussian duke and the orders.
These orders, representatives of the nobility and the towns, recognized his power through homage, but were often in opposition to the duke and his policy, demanding accounts and sometimes standing up against his policy.
On October 5, 1566, Albert of Brandenburg, then at the end of his reign, had to concede them a constitution strictly framing the prerogatives of the duke. Indeed, he had to accept the creation of an Oberrat, composed of 4 councillors, the grand burgrave, the grand marshal, the master of the court and the chancellor: together with the duke, they composed the Oberratstube, an authority which lasted until 1808.
Often absent after the establishment of the personal union with Brandenburg, the duke was represented on the spot by a Statthalter, a governor chosen by the duke from his close relatives.
The year 1618 was a turning point in the history of the duchy. Indeed, the duchy, a small Baltic principality vassal of the Republic of the Two Nations, devolved, after the death of Albert-Frédéric without a male heir, to his daughter Anne of Prussia, wife of the elector John III Sigismund of Brandenburg.
The union with Brandenburg
On the death of Duke Albert-Frederic of Prussia, the duchy fell to his daughter, Anne of Prussia, wife of John III Sigismund of Brandenburg, in a personal union under the name of Brandenburg-Prussia. Within this framework, the duchy preserves its specificities, but is only one territory among others placed under the sceptre of the elector. Drawn into the conflicts that punctuated the life of the Holy Roman Empire and in which the elector was often involved, the duchy nevertheless constituted a refuge for the prince and his family during the periods of occupation of the electorate.
This personal union also changed the relationship between the duke and his duchy. The duke quickly wished for the establishment of institutions comparable to those in force in the German electorate. Thus, imposed from Berlin, the establishment of a heavier tax and financial reforms aimed at transforming the two principalities into a single state were hardly accepted in the duchy.
The end of Polish suzerainty
From 1655 to 1660, during the First Northern War, Brandenburg-Prussia temporarily allied itself with Sweden: on July 30, 1656, Sweden and Brandenburg-Prussia won the Battle of Warsaw against the Republic of the Two Nations. This alliance led to the plundering of the duchy by the Tatars in the service of the King of Poland.
On November 20, 1656, by the treaty of Labiau, the king of Sweden, in difficulty with the Poles, recognized the sovereignty of the elector Frederic-Guillaume I of Brandenburg on the duchy of Prussia. On September 16, 1657, by the treaty of Wehlau, the duke of Prussia, frightened by the Swedish installation in royal Prussia, and the king of Poland allied themselves vis-a-vis Sweden; the Pole gave up his suzerainty on the duchy of Prussia in return for the rupture of his alliance with Sweden. The “duke in Prussia” becomes “duke of Prussia”. The agreement is confirmed by the treaty of Bromberg (November 9, 1657) then the treaty of Oliva (moreover, located outside the Empire, the duchy asserts itself as sovereign from this date, the duke of Prussia does not owe any more feudal homage to any temporal power for the duchy.
The Duke, “King in Prussia
In 1700, during the negotiations to form the Grand Alliance, the Duke of Prussia Frederick III obtained from the Emperor the erection of his duchy into a kingdom. However, he could not be called “King of Prussia” in the Holy Roman Empire, but only “King in Prussia” (until 1772).
The provisions making the king of Poland the heir of the Prussian sovereign will be approved by the Diet of the Republic of the Two Nations only in 1764, at the pressing request of the Russians.
Located at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, the duchy plays an important role in the Baltic Sea economy.
The transformation of the Teutonic State into a duchy did not change the relationships between the various economic actors, with the Duke of Prussia inheriting the prerogatives of the Grand Master.
At the same time, the ducal capital, Königsberg, experienced a certain economic boom, specializing in the export of textiles and leather from a vast hinterland.
The Duchy of Prussia, heir to the Teutonic Order, developed the economy of the conquered territories during the 13th and 14th centuries by encouraging the cultivation of cereals in large estates. During the 16th century, the importance of the owners of these estates grew, especially because they were the only ones able to meet the needs of the dukes, who entrusted them with the management of their private or public estates
At the crossroads of different trade routes
Thus, the Duchy is at the confluence of several trade routes, a crossing point between the Vistula and Niemen basins. Moreover, the high demand for wood and foodstuffs strengthened the economy of the Duchy and its main port, Königsberg. Moreover, during the 16th century, the influence of Hanse traders in the economy of the Duchy declined, gradually replaced by Dutch traders.
Moreover, low demand, combined with a large hinterland, quickly creates the conditions for a large balance of payments surplus.
The economy of the Duchy is essentially agrarian, based on large agricultural estates, on which an increasingly dependent peasantry works.
Moreover, soon after the establishment of the duchy, the Prussian rulers integrated many persecuted Protestants into the population of their state: thus, as early as 1543, Dutch Protestants expelled by Charles V were settled in Königsberg and Eylau, and Polish and Lithuanian Protestants were settled in the south and northeast of the duchy, respectively, encouraging the demographic and economic dynamism of the duchy.
- Duché de Prusse
- Duchy of Prussia
- ^ The duchy’s Evangelical (Protestant) church was the first formally established as a state religion.
- Anonyme, Free Europe: Fortnightly Review of International Affairs, volumes 4 à 5, Broché, 1941.
- Cornelius J. Dyck, Dennis D. Martin, Cornelius J. Dyck, Dennis D. Martin, Mennonite Brethren Pub. House, 1955.
- Een Pruisische maat voor ongeveer veertig hectare.
- Herbert Helbig: Ordensstaat, Herzogtum Preußen und preußische Monarchie. In: Richard Dietrich (Hrsg.): Preußen – Epochen und Probleme seiner Geschichte. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 1964, S. 8 (Nachdruck 2019, ISBN 978-3-11-081858-1).