Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War

gigatos | February 7, 2022


The Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War (or Great War), which occurred between 1409 and 1411, saw the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania fighting together against the Teutonic Knights. With inspiration provided by the revolt in Samogitia, the war began with the Teutonic invasion of Poland in August 1409. Since both sides were unprepared for a full-scale war, Wenceslas of Luxembourg negotiated a nine-month armistice. At the end of the armistice, in June 1410, the Teutonic knights were defeated at the Battle of Grunwald, one of the largest battles in medieval Europe. Most of the Teutonic command was killed or taken prisoner. Although defeated, the Teutonic knights resisted the siege of their capital Marienburg (Malbork) suffering minimal territorial losses in the First Treaty of Toruń in 1411. The territorial disputes lasted until the Treaty of Melno in 1422. However, the knights would never regain their former power, and the financial burden of war indemnity caused internal strife and economic decline in their lands. The war changed the balance of power in Central Europe and marked the emergence of the Polish-Lithuanian union as the dominant power in the region.

In 1230, the Teutonic Order, a crusading chivalric order, moved to the land of Chełmno (now within the voivodeship of Cuaivia-Pomerania) and, at the request of Konrad I, King of the Slavs of Masovia, launched the Prussian Crusade against the pagan Prussian clans. With the support of the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire, the Teutons conquered and converted the Prussians by the 1280s and shifted their focus to the pagan Grand Duchy of Lithuania. For about a century, the knights fought the Lithuanian Crusade, plundering Lithuanian lands, particularly Samogitia, as it separated the Teutons in Prussia from their branch in Livonia. The border regions became uninhabited heath, but the Teutonic gained little ground. The Lithuanians had ceded Samogitia during the Lithuanian Civil War (1381-1384) in the Treaty of Dubysa. The territory was used as a bargaining chip to secure Teutonic support for one side of the internal power struggle.

In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania proposed to marry Queen Hedwig of Poland in the union of Krewo. Jogaila converted to Christianity and was crowned king of Poland, thus creating a personal union between the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Lithuania”s official conversion to Christianity nullified the religious motivation for Teutonic activities in the area. Nevertheless, the knights responded by publicly questioning the sincerity of Jogaila”s conversion, taking the matter to a papal court. Samogitia, in Teuton hands since the 1404 Treaty of Raciąż, was disputed. Poland claimed Danzig (Danzig) and the land of Dobrzyń, but the two states had been at peace since the Treaty of Kalisz (1343). The conflict was also caused by commercial reasons: the knights controlled the lower reaches of the three longest rivers in Poland and Lithuania (Nemunas, Vistula, and Daugava).

Revolt, war, and armistice

In May 1409, a revolt broke out in Samogitia, under Teutonic rule. Lithuania supported the revolt and the knights threatened to invade. Poland declared its support for the Lithuanian cause and in response threatened to invade Prussia. Because Prussian troops had evacuated Samogitia, Teutonic Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen declared war on the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on August 6, 1409. The knights hoped to defeat Poland and Lithuania separately, so they invaded Greater Poland and Cuiavia, taking the Poles by surprise. The knights burned the castle at Dobrin (Dobrzyń nad Wisłą), occupied Bobrowniki after a fourteen-day siege, captured Bydgoszcz (Bromberg in German), and plundered many towns. The Poles organized counterattacks and retook Bydgoszcz. The Samogitians attacked Memel (Klaipėda). However, neither side was ready for a full-scale war.

Wenceslas of Luxembourg agreed to mediate on the dispute. An armistice was signed on October 8, 1409; it should have expired on June 24, 1410. Both sides took advantage of this period to prepare themselves to the battle, gathering the troops and to dedicate themselves to diplomatic maneuvers. Both sides sent letters and emissaries to accuse the other of various wrongdoings and threats to the Christian world. Wenceslas, who received a gift of 60,000 florins from the knights, declared that Samogitia rightfully belonged to the Germans and only the land of Dobrzyń should be returned to Poland. The knights also paid 300,000 ducats to Sigismund of Luxembourg, who aspired to the principality of Moldavia, for his help in battle. Sigismund attempted to break the Polish-Lithuanian alliance by offering Vitoldo a king”s crown; Vitoldo”s acceptance of such a crown would have violated the terms of the Treaty of Astrava and led to discord between Poland and Lithuania. At the same time Vitoldo managed to obtain an armistice from the Teutonic order in Livonia.

Strategy and march in Prussia

In December 1409, Jogaila and Vitoldo decided on a common strategy: their armies would merge into a single force and march together to Marienburg (Malbork), capital of the Teutonic Knights. The knights, who kept themselves on the defensive, did not expect a joint attack and were preparing for a double invasion – against the Poles along the Vistula River toward Danzig and against the Lithuanians along the Nemunas River toward Ragnit (Neman). To counterattack the perceived threat, Ulrich von Jungingen concentrated his forces in Schwetz (Świecie), a central location from which troops could respond to an invasion coming from any direction fairly quickly. To keep the plans secret and mislead the Knights, Jogaila and Vitoldo organized numerous raids into the border territories, thus forcing the Knights to keep their troops in place.

The first part of the Grunwald campaign consisted of gathering all Polish-Lithuanian troops at Czerwinsk, a meeting point some 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Prussian border, where the combined army crossed the Vistula with a pontoon bridge. This maneuver, which required precision and coordination among multi-ethnic forces, was completed in about a week, from June 24 to June 30, 1410. After the crossing, Masovian troops under Siemowit IV and Janusz I joined the Polish-Lithuanian army. The huge force began its march north from Marienburg (Malbork), the Prussian capital, on July 3. The Prussian border was crossed on July 9. As soon as Ulrich von Jungingen understood Polish-Lithuanian intentions, he left 3,000 men at Schwetz (Świecie) under Heinrich von Plauen and marched with his main forces to organize a line of defense on the Drewenz (Drwęca) River near Kauernik (Kurzętnik). On July 11, Jogaila decided not to cross the river in such a strongly defensible position, and instead bypassed the crossing by going to the source, to the east, where there were no major rivers to separate his army from Marienburg. The Teutonic army followed the Drewenz River northward, crossed it near Löbau (Lubawa), then moved eastward in parallel with the Polish-Lithuanian army. The latter sacked the village of Gilgenburg (Dąbrówno). Von Jungingen was so enraged by the atrocities that he vowed to defeat the invaders in battle.

Battle of Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald took place on July 15, 1410 between the villages of Grunwald, Tannenberg (Stębark) and Ludwigsdorf (Łodwigowo). According to modern estimates, the number of troops ranged from 16 500 to 39 000 Polish-Lithuanian and from 11 000 to 27 000 Teutonic. The Polish-Lithuanian army was a melting pot of nationalities and religions: Polish-Lithuanian Catholic troops fought side by side with pagan Samogitians, orthodox Ruthenians, and Muslim Tatars. Twenty-two different peoples, mostly German, joined the Teutonic side.

The Knights hoped to provoke the Poles and Lithuanians to attack first and sent two swords, known as the “swords of Grunwald,” to “assist Jogaila and Vitoldo in battle.” The Lithuanians attacked first, but after more than an hour of fighting, the Lithuanian light cavalry began to beat a retreat. The reason for the retreat – whether it was due to defeat or tactics – is still a matter of debate. The fighting between the Polish and Teutonic forces and even reached the royal camp of Jogaila. A Horseman directly attacked King Jogaila, who was rescued by Royal Secretary Zbigniew Oleśnicki. As the Polish troops were about to win, the Lithuanians re-entered the battle. Grand Master von Jungingen was killed when he attempted to breach the Lithuanian lines. Surrounded and without a commander, the Teutonic Knights began to fall back to their camps in hopes of organizing a defensive fort. However, the defense was soon broken and the camp looted, and according to an eyewitness account, more Knights died there than on the battlefield.

The defeat of the Teutonic Knights was resounding. About 8000 Teutons were killed and another 14000 were taken prisoner. Most of the brothers of the Order were killed, including almost the entire Teutonic command. The highest ranking Teutonic officers who managed to escape were Werner von Tettinger, Komtur of Elbląg. Almost all of the captive commoners and mercenaries were released shortly after the battle, with the condition that they report to Krakow on November 11, 1410. Nobles were kept imprisoned and high ransoms were demanded for their release.

Siege of Marienburg

After the battle, Polish and Lithuanian forces delayed their attack on the Teutonic capital of Marienburg (Malbork) by staying in the battlefield for three days and then marching an average of 15 kilometers per day. The main forces did not reach the heavily fortified town of Marienburg until July 26. The delay gave Heinrich von Plauen sufficient time to organize the defense. Polish historian Paweł Jasienica speculated that this was probably a deliberate move by Jogaila, who along with Vitoldo preferred to keep the Order, humiliated but not decimated, in play so as not to upset the balance of power between Poland (which would almost certainly have acquired most of the Order”s holdings had it been totally defeated) and Lithuania; but a definitive explanation is precluded by the lack of primary sources.

Jogaila, meanwhile, also sent his troops toward other Teutonic fortresses, which often surrendered without resistance, including the large cities of Gdansk, Toruń, and Elbląg. Only eight castles remained in Teutonic hands. The Polish and Lithuanian besiegers of Marienburg were not ready for long-term combat, and suffered from lack of ammunition, low morale, and a dysentery epidemic. The Knights appealed to their allies, and Sigismund of Luxembourg, Wenceslas of Luxembourg, and the Livonian Order promised financial aid and reinforcements. The siege of Marienburg was lifted on September 19. Polish-Lithuanian forces left garrisons in the fortresses that either were captured or surrendered and returned home. However, the Knights quickly recaptured almost all of the lost castles. By the end of October, only four Teutonic castles along the border remained in Polish hands. Jogaila gathered a new army and dealt another defeat to the Knights at the Battle of Koronowo on October 10, 1410. Following more brief fighting, both sides agreed to negotiate.

The first Treaty of Toruń was signed on February 1, 1411. It stipulated that the Teutons had to cede the land of Dobrzyń to Poland and that they agreed to give up their claims to Samogitia while Jogaila and Vitoldo were alive, although two wars were waged (the Hunger War of 1414 and the Gollub War of 1422) before the Treaty of Melno resolved the territorial disputes permanently. The Poles and Lithuanians were unable to translate their military victory into diplomatic or territorial advantages. However, the Treaty of Toruń imposed a heavy financial burden on the Knights from which they would never recover. They had to pay a silver indemnity, equal to ten times the King of England”s annual income, in four annual installments. To pay, the knights made loans and confiscated gold and silver from churches, and raised taxes. Two major Prussian cities, Danzig (Danzig) and Thorn (Toruń), rose up against the tax increase. The defeat at Grunwald left the Teutonic knights with few forces to defend the remaining territories. Since both Poland and Lithuania were Christian cities at the time, the knights had difficulty recruiting new volunteer crusaders. The Grand Masters then needed to rely on mercenary troops, which was a major blow to their already impoverished finances. Internal conflicts, economic decline, and rising taxes led to instability and the founding of the Prussian Confederation, or Alliance Against the Lords, in 1441. This, in turn, led to a series of conflicts that culminated in the Thirteen Years” War, which ended in 1466 with the Second Treaty of Toruń.


  1. Guerra polacco-lituano-teutonica
  2. Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War
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