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Teutonic Knights

Updated on February 19, 2010

Teutonic Knights were one of several military-religious orders founded in the 12th century during the Crusades. The Teutonic Knights came to play an important role in the settlement of eastern Europe during the late Middle Ages.

The Knights, also known as the Order of the Germans of the Hospital of St. Mary and as the Teutonic Order, originated in 1190 during the Third Crusade, when citizens of Liibeck and Bremen founded a hospital for the besiegers of Acre. In 1198 the foundation became an order of knights devoted to fighting for the Christian faith. The Knights quickly acquired much property in the Holy Land, Greece, southern Italy, and Germany. With the waning of crusading zeal in the Holy Land in the early 13th century, their assistance was sought for the conversion of heathens in eastern Europe.

Activities in Europe

Beginning in 1211, under Grand Master Hermann von Salza, they undertook, in order to protect Hungary, conquests and conversions in neighboring Transylvania. When the Knights demanded too many lands for themselves, they were expelled but were soon summoned by Conrad, the Polish Prince of Masovia, to lend a hand against the heathen Prussians to the northeast. Empowered in 1226 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II to become overlords of Prussia, the Knights established themselves in Thorn (Torun) and Kulm (Chelmno). Their ranks were swelled by increasing numbers of crusaders seeking new fields of action, and to consolidate their holdings they invited German peasants and nobles to settle in Prussia. In 1237 the Knights advanced into Livonia (modem Estonia and Latvia), but a further advance against the Orthodox Christians of Russia was stopped by the forces of Alexander Nevsky at Lake Peipus in 1242. Thus the sovereignty of the order came to be confined to the Baltic coast-lands, stretching from Courland (now part of Latvia) to Pomerelia, an area west of the Vistula River.

The order was governed by a grand master, selected for life, who resided first in Venice, then in Marienburg, and from 1466 in Konigsberg. The grand master owed allegiance to the Holy Roman emperor, although he was neither an imperial prince nor enfeoffed by the emperor. Assisted by five "grand lords," the grand master controlled the provincial governors. Membership was shared between knights and priests. They wore a uniform of a white coat with a black cross.

The invasion of Prussia by the order and the oppression of the native heathen Slavs resulted in the Germanization and Christianization of the area. The territory of the order had its greatest cultural and economic flowering under the administration (1351-1382) of Grand Master Win-rich von Kniprode. It developed a remarkable architecture in its many castles and a characteristic religious-historical literature. The most flourishing cities, such as Danzig, Thorn, Elbing, and Konigsberg, belonged to the Hanseatic League. The Knights' original tasks of conquest and conversion gave way to peaceful administration and trade. But the aristocratic and alien nature of the conquest was a source of discontent in Prussia, even though the German colonists tended to merge with the native population.

As the order promoted Christianization it helped to create a situation in which the existence of the order itself tended to become superfluous. By the time Christian Lithuania and Christian Poland united in 1386, the state of the order had become a German outpost against another Christian group, the Orthodox Slavs. An originally religious crusade had become a racial conflict, with Christians on both sides.

Decline of the Knights

In an attempt at self-assertion, the Knights went to war, but they were decisively beaten by a Polish-Lithuanian army at Tannenberg in 1410. At the same time there was growing discontent in the Prussian cities with the rule of the Knights. After an abortive attempt to reform the order by Grand Master Heinrich von Plauen, the secular nobility and the towns formed the Prussian Union in 1440 to seek assistance from Poland against the order. As a result, the Knights were forced in 1466 to surrender much land to Poland and accept Polish sovereignty for the remainder.

After unsuccessful requests for help from the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century, Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg, following the secularizing trend of the Reformation, transformed Prussia into a hereditary dukedom and as Duke of Prussia became the vassal of the king of Poland. The provincial masters of Livonia vainly tried to maintain the independence of the order there. In 1530, Emperor Charles V made the provincial master of Germany the grand master and charged him with the administration of the far-flung properties. Even so it became almost impossible for the Knights to follow the general trend and to acquire territorial sovereignty for their possessions within the empire. The Teutonic Knights were dissolved by Napoleon but were refounded as a religious order by Emperor Francis I.

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