Chapter III: The Crusade against Lithuania
“(...) after all nations in the land of Prussia had been beaten and exterminated so that no one survived which did not humbly bend the neck to the Holy Roman Church, the aforesaid brethren of the German House initiated the war against that mighty people, most stubborn and well-versed in war, which is neighbour to the land of Prussia dwelling beyond the Nemunas river in the land of Lithuania.”
Peter of Duisburg, chronicler of the Teutonic Knights
Grand Duke Algimantas in 1188
1188 seemed an auspicious year for Grand Duke Algimantas. He married his daughter Gabija to Medys, a Samogitian duke who had been one of his strongest supporters in the unification of Upper and Lower Lithuania. His second wife bore him a son, Butigeidis.
1188, new family members
And most importantly, the proud Curonians had finally submitted, allowing Algimantas now to send his military forces to regions within the Grand Duchy that weren't yet totally under his control. In August, Jaunutis marched against Ļaudona, a rebel stronghold in Northern Latgale.
Meanwhile, the Teutonic Order was again ready to resume its fight against the pagans. On 26 September 1188, at the insistence of Grand Master Hermann von Salza, Pope Alexander III issued a papal bull declaring a crusade against Lithuania.
Unlike twelve years before, the response of the Catholic Europe was not immediate. The first Christian monarch who answered the call was Baldwin IV, king of Jerusalem, whose realm was now at peace and secure; but it would take long for the Levantine crusaders to arrive in the Baltic.
For the first year of the crusade, the Teutonic Order was reinforced with mostly German crusaders, mercenaries and fortune-seekers eager to be led into battle.
During the winter of 1188 to 1189, the Teutonic Knights conducted several raids in southern Samogitia, along the border of the Neman River, while they assembled enough men for a full-scale invasion. The Teutonic Knights probably knew of the Lithuanian campaign in Curonia, and wanted to attack before the Lithuanians could recover and organise their defenses.
After the outbreak of the crusader attacks, Algimantas sent a message to Jaunutis asking him to lift the siege of Ļaudona and come in full strength and with all haste to Anykščiai, about 65 miles north of the capital, where the Lithuanian forces were gathering. There they spent the winter waiting for the enemy to push deeper into the Grand Duchy's territory.
In March 1189, a dispute about land grants arose between the leaders of the Order and secular soldiers led by a veteran crusader named Walther of Marburg. The number of Walther's followers rose to more than 2,000 men, who refused to participate in the campaign until their demands were satisfied.
Not wanting to delay the attack any longer, on 12 March a 3000 men-strong war party under the command of Arnoldt von Gattersleben crossed the Neman near Kaunas and marched along the Neris River, raiding and plundering local settlements.
The Knights found little opposition, and von Gattersleben decided to continue advancing toward Vilnius.
Battle of Maišiagala (March 23, 1189)
Near Maišiagala, about 15 miles northwest of Vilnius, The Teutonic Knights were intercepted by a Lithuanian army led by Grand Duke Algimantas and his two sons Gytautas and Jaunutis. The Knights were coming from Kernavė, which they had raided, and found themselves in a low terrain surrounded by soft elevations as the Lithuanian army, coming from the north, formed lines on a hillside.
The Knights were slightly outnumbered by the Lithuanians, and both armies had a similar composition, but von Gattersleben was confident in the superior equipment, morale and discipline of his troops. At the time it was generally accepted among the Catholic commanders that the typically light infantry fielded by the Baltic pagans was no match in close combat for the Western heavy infantry and cavalry, and von Gattersleben had many knights and veteran crusaders in his army.
There was on both sides a great number of missile troops, which were deployed in loose formation in the front line. The battle started with the usual missile exchange, during which the Lithuanian archers had a high ground advantage.
Meanwhile, part of the Lithuanian ducal cavalry maneuvered around the crusaders' left flank and made a downhill charge that wiped out a detachment of crusader mounted knights.
Von Gattersleben over-confidently ordered a full charge of his infantry and right-flank cavalry against the Lithuanian lines. The crusaders advanced on a wet and muddy field under a hail of arrows.
Against von Gattersleben's expectations, the Lithuanian infantry resisted frimly the Teutonic assault. There was in the Pagan ranks a significant number of heavy foot troops, equipped with chainmail or leather scale armor, swords and large round shields, capable of stand ground against the crusader infantry.
Algimantas' ducal cavalry killed or routed the crusaders' right-flank cavalry, and then turned around to charge the already engaged Teutonic infantry. Von Gattersleben was able to break the Lithuanian line with a charge of the powerful Teutonic heavy cavalry, but after an intense mêlée, the battle turned clearly in favor of the Lithuanians.
The Teutonic commander was killed and the remaining crusaders surrendered.