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The Battle on the Ice

Updated on March 26, 2016

The Northern Crusades

When the Crusades are brought up, many people generally think of the battles that took place throughout much of the holy land. The Crusader armies that where raised to reclaim cities such as Jerusalem, from the hands of the Muslim empires have become one of the most reconized period in medieval history. These where not the only crusades that had been called for. The main goal of these types of campaigns was to attack the enemies of the church no matter where they might be located. These lead to armies being formed to take on the pagans that had inhabited much of the Slavic countries during this time period.

The Northern Crusades, also known as the Baltic Crusades, was a campaign that was waged by the Teutonic military order as well as a coalition of Scandinavian kings from nations such as Poland, Denmark and Sweden. The goal of this crusade was to push out the pagans that lived in the northern parts of Europe. The armies where to start in the northern part of the continent and work its way around the Baltic Sea. This conflict didn't just include war with the pagans, but also included many battles against Russia which was a Greek Orthodox Nation.

The Nations Involved in the Northern Crusade

The attempt to end paganism took over much of the baltic region.
The attempt to end paganism took over much of the baltic region. | Source

The Novgorod Republic

The Novgorod Republic was a Russian medieval state that served as the capital for the Russ people. During the middle ages, the republic was known as a hub for hunting, agricultural, fishing and beekeeping. The nation was able to establish itself as a wealthy nation in part dur to its iron mines that provided a well sought after real materiel used in weapons and tools. The richness in its economy would make it subject to numerous attacks from its neighbors looking for access to the wealth of goods available in the republic.

For much of the Republic's history, the nation was able to avoid being caught up with foreign invasion, such as the Mongol invasion. It wouldn't be until later into the middle ages that Novgorod would end up turning into a battle ground from its German, Danish and Swedish neighbors. While the campaigns that where launched by the nations neighbors ended up not being successful, it still put a strain on the Baltic nation. After numerous conflicts with Lithuania and a failed alliance with Poland, Novgorod would eventually find itself becoming occupied by Russia in 1478.

A Marketplace in Novgorod

A paint of a Novgorod marketplace by Apollinay Vasnetsov
A paint of a Novgorod marketplace by Apollinay Vasnetsov | Source

The March of the Teutonic Knights

The Germanic Teutonic Knights is one history's most famous orders of knights. These warriors had developed a reputation for being fearsome warriors on the battlefield as well as being protectors of the faith. The Teutonic Knights are one of the orders who helped spread Christianity to a good portion of Europe.

With the Mongol invasion occurring, the order decided to exploit the chaos occurring in Eastern Europe and invade the Republic of Novgorod. During the spring of 1242, the knights where seeing a string of victories against Novgorod. The quickness pushed the young prince of the republic, Alexander Nevsky to rethink his strategy and to take advantage of any weakness that he could use to stop the Teutonic Knights from overthrowing his rule.

The quick victories the crusader army was able to achieve, lead to a high level of overconfidence among the troops. This lead to the crusaders being baited into battle easier than it may have normally been. With the help of Russian allies, Alexander would use both the over confidence of his enemy and the natural terrain to his advantage.

The History of the Teutonic Order

Teutonic Knight on Horseback

A mounted knight in full armor.
A mounted knight in full armor. | Source

The Frozen Lake

The crusader army was larger than the one that Alexander had, but not by much. With the numbers not being in his favor, he decided that he was going to use the natural terrain to his advantage. Knowing that the string of victories that the crusades achieved would leave them eager for more victories, he lured the army out onto a frozen lake that would prove to be the trick to defeating the invaders.

When the two armies faced, the crusaders found themselves struggling to fight in full armor against the militias of Novgorod. For hours, the crusaders struggled to over power the militias but found themselves unable to break their lines. When the crusaders where beginning to tire, Alexander order the rest of his army and cavalry to flank to crusader forces, effectively breaking their lines. This defeat would be the end of the northern crusades as the armies of Eastern Europe where able to successfully push out the crusader armies.

Learn More About the Crusade Against the Pagan Nations

The Aftermath of the Battle

The Battle of Ice wasn't just the end of the Northern Crusades, but it was also the last time a military force was used to try and spread the power of the Catholic church into Eastern Europe. One the crusader line was broken, the Russian/Novgorod force slaughtered much of the crusader forces. Many accounts of the battle highlight the overwhelming odds that ended up occurring once the crusaders attempted to retreat. While there are some conflicting accounts of the actions of the crusaders, the high level of casualties that the Eastern European forces inflicted made it impossible for crusading forces to continue their campaign against the northern pagans.

Disputes About the Battle of Ice

Throughout the years, historians have had different takes on the events of the battle. These disputes, while not changing the effect the battle had on the spread of Teutonic power, have become glorified in various retelling of the battle. The 1938 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein, the battle is shown to end with the crusader army falling through the ice. While this makes for a dramatic piece of symbolism, many have been quick point out that there is no credible source for the event to occur.

Many of the medieval historians who have written about this iconic battle never mentioned the army falling through the ice. Writers such as Karamzin, have outlined the events leading up to and including the battle. In these writings the over confidence of the crusaders is mentioned and the bloody massacre of the crusader army that brought the battle to an end is described but there was never a record of anyone drowning nor of the ice breaking under the weight of the forces.

The Battle of Ice in Pop Culture

This iconic battle has found its way into the subconscious of pop cultural. Besides the 1938 film that glorious the victory against the Teutonic Order, this battle has become the basis for its own myths as well as being the inspiration for other myths. Alexander Nevsky become a state hero in Russia during World War II. The victory the Russian forces achieved was used to inspire inspiration in soldiers who where attempting to stop the Nazi advance through Eastern Europe. Russia even gave out medals known as the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky for outstanding bravery on the battle field.The battle also served as inspiration for cinema and literary in such pieces such as the 2009 anime, First Squad and is even believed to serve as inspiration for a few battles in the fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

The Decline of the Teutonic Knights


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