Sword Brothers: The Knights who Baptized the Baltics
“This sword taken in my hand is for the protection of God and Mary’s land.” – Oath of the Master of the Sword Brothers
When the apostles dispersed after the Resurrection of Our Lord, they brought the gospel throughout the world. St. Thomas the Apostle managed to make it as far as India, where his tomb can be visited to this day. One place they did not go, however, was the Baltics – an area of Northeastern Europe encompassing Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Even by the late Middle Ages, the faith had only sparsely penetrated that territory.
The subject of this article is about the dynamic, albeit short-lived, military order that will be forever tied to the conversion of the Baltic region.
This order of knights was not formed to recover lost holy sites or misappropriated Christian lands. Rather the Fratres Militiae Christi (or Sword Brothers) was founded to protect the fledgling missions in the East. To them, it was their solemn duty to bring the faith where the apostles had not set foot.
Background and Foundation
Since the dawn of the faith, Catholics have engaged in apostolic endeavors with the intent of fulfilling the Great Commission given to the Church by its founder, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Naturally, the Germans, whose empire bordered the Baltic lands – at that time referred to as Livonia -- helped spread the Lumen Christi to their pagan neighbors. The first major effort in this regard was spearheaded by Bishop Meinhard, an Augustinian monk, in the XII century, when the Empire was at its height.
The savagery of the pagans they encountered was enough to make one’s stomach turn. As author Desmond Seward describes it in The Monks of War,
“Balts worshipped idols in sacred groves and fields, and attributed divine powers to the entire creature-world, including their own animals. They practised human sacrifice, by burning or beheading, and buried animals alive at funerals; dead warriors were cremated astride their horses, while widows were often made to hang themselves. Stockades of towns and temples were adorned with animal skulls to ward off the evil eye, their grim shrines served by weird priests and soothsayers. The Prussians’ domestic habits were as unpleasant as their religion. The old, the sick, the blind and the lame were invariably slaughtered. Drunkenness from mead and fermented mares’ milk was a major pastime while tribesmen often drank living blood from their horses veins. Inter-tribal warfare was endemic.”
After several seemingly successful small-scale conversions, a bishopric was established in Riga, which today is the capital of Latvia. Along with the influx of missionary clergy, there was also a large movement of German merchants from the Empire into the area. And with these churchmen and entrepreneurs came groups of “seasonal warriors” – so-called because they would only stay for a few months of the year – who were seeking adventure and the opportunity to do God’s will.
The German missionaries, seeking to continue the work of the apostles, chose to offer their efforts as a dowry to their great patroness, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. This is of special significance as it was during this time (the XII and XIII centuries) that authentic Marian devotion was arguably at its height in Christendom. In addition to their dedication of the land and its people to Our Lady, the German military orders operating within the region were specifically consecrated to the Queen of Heaven. The official title of the Teutonic Order, for example, was Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Hierosolymitanorum.
Unfortunately, many of the early conversions turned out to be false, as many of the Livonians, simply wishing to benefit materially from the fruits of Christian Civilization, would attempt to “wash away” their baptisms in the Dvina River while the priests were not present. Their subterfuge was not limited there, however. Those perfidious Livonians, on several occasions, went so far as to brutally murder missionary clergy and the Germans who traveled with them. These and similar actions resulted in a series of small yet horrible conflicts.
Due to the constant threat of their subversive neighbors, the Germans needed a full-time force to best protect themselves. So, at the behest of Bishop Albert of Riga, Brother Theodoric, a local Cistercian monk, founded the Brothers of the Militia of Christ (Sword Brothers) to accomplish what the seasonal crusaders could not.
This new order adopted the rule of the Knights Templar, itself of Cistercian foundation. For a habit, they wore white garments emblazoned with their symbol; a red cross atop a red sword. Their grandmaster (they only had two in their history) was a layperson. The Pope at the time also bestowed upon them and the other crusaders there the same honors and privileges as those who fought in the Holy Land.
Masters of Combat
From their inception, the Sword Brothers were in the thick of the fight. Scarcely numbering more than 100 knights, they compensated for their lack of manpower with grace, heroism, skill and innovation.
More often than not they found themselves outnumbered on the battlefield. This was true even when they were supported by native auxiliaries, for as loyal as they were, they did not possess the chivalric courage of their Catholic allies. In these situations, the German crusaders commended themselves to God, saying that it was better to die for their Lord than retreat in shame. By His grace, their efforts were often rewarded and they were able to perform brilliant actions which roused their less daring comrades into the fight. As contemporary chroniclers record, the knights would often take down scores of foes before one of their own succumbed.
Henry of Livonia, a priest of that time, offered the following account:
“It seemed expedient to all that, after calling the aid of Almighty God upon themselves and commending the new church to Him, they should go to war with those in Holm [who had attacked them], for it was better to die for the faith of Christ than for them to be daily tortured, one by one. After they had turned the city over to the lord bishop, therefore, the braver Germans with their Livonian Rigans armed, took ballistarii and archers with them and went up the river by ship. They reached the fort at Holm on the fifteenth day after Pentecost [June 4]. After seeing their approach, the enemy rushed boldly up to prevent access to the shore. Because of their own fewness in number, the Christians were at first dismayed, for they numbered scarcely a hundred and fifty, while there was a multitude of the enemy, but they employed the aid and mercy of God with a song and, having recovered their spirits, at last sprang out. The first to spring was Arnold, a Brother of the Militia, who was followed by the servants of the bishop and others from another ship. They all approached the enemy at once. And fighting at first in the water, they received the hostile lances and the stones from the shore which fell cruelly upon them; at length, after a very brave fight, they took the beach.”
Additionally, they employed the use of the latest military technology made available by the constant flow of merchants to and from the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps the most effective of these was the newly developed crossbow, which with its unparalleled accuracy and power allowed them to repel large forces belonging not only to the Baltic pagans, but also the armies of the schismatic Russians who aided the Livonians against the Catholics. Against the walled cities of their enemies, they employed large-scale siege equipment. Another innovation, which would later become a staple of warfare in the age of gunpowder, was the use of fife and drum music to boost morale, coordinate formations and issue orders.
In a relatively short period of time, the Order managed to obtain large swathes of Livonia. So vast were their holdings that in spite of the fact that they surrendered most of their conquests to the diocese, they were forced to disperse their knights among their various outposts to the point where there were about a dozen in each castle. More than any other Western power, they were responsible for the expansion of the dominion of Christendom in the region.
Fighting conditions were most difficult. In contrast to the Christians of the West and East, the pagans waged a wholly uncivilized form of warfare. Rather than being ransomed, Catholics captured in battles or raids would either be painfully dismembered or immolated as offerings to the demons whom the heathens worshipped as gods. After one battle, in which a warband of Livonians was defeated, the crusader army entered the village of their fallen foe only to find the trees filled with corpses swaying in the wind (the bodies of the wives of the slain men). To further complicate things, they could not even trust their own auxiliaries, as they were liable to betray them in battle.
The Final Battle
Despite an instance of the first grandmaster being killed during an altercation with one of his own men, the Sword Brothers were acknowledged as an accomplished order locally and throughout Christendom. A contemporary remarked, “all have heard what grace God bestowed during [their] time.” Their heroism and success brought them praise from the Holy Father at various points of their history.
As the order became more successful, it came into frequent friction with several European lords, including the bishop of Riga and a papal legate. This resulted in a series of conflicts of a political nature. These clashes culminated when a Christian force under the command of Baldwin of Aulne attacked the order. Fortunately, the brother-knights were able to repel the aggression and afterwards petition the pope.
Unlike other similar institutions, the demise of the Sword Brothers was not due to internal decadence. In the year 1236, thirty-four years after their founding, they were defeated by a significantly larger force of pagans in a marsh, which prevented them from properly utilizing their horses. As the Teutonic knight who penned the famous Livonian Rhymed Chronicle recalls,
“The next day the Christians thought to ride away early, but they had to fight the heathens even though they did not want to. In marsh they could offer but weak resistance, and they were cut down like women. I lament the deaths of many heroes who were so easily slain… The master and his brothers put up an heroic defense until their horses were slain and even then they fought on foot and struck down many men before they were vanquished. Good Master Volkwin encouraged his brothers. Forty-eight made this stand and were attacked repeatedly. Finally, and with great difficulty, the Lithuanians killed them with long spears. God rest their souls. They, along with many other crusaders, departed this life in glory. May God, Who died for their sake, be merciful to all of them, and may He deliver their souls from all suffering.”
Following this tragic defeat, the surviving Sword Brothers were received, under orders of Pope Gregory IX, into the Teutonic Order, which would continue the work where the Brothers of the Militia’s work had left off.
Christians living in the Baltics today owe much to their crusading forebears. Without the sacrifice of those dedicated Marian warriors, it is unlikely that the faith would be found their today.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Order of the Brothers of the Sword." Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20, 1998. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Order-of-the-Brothers-of-the-Sword.
Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. London: Penguin Group, 2005.
Lettis, Henricus De. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia. Translated by James A. Brundage. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Murray, Alan V. The Crusades: an Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
Murray, Alan V. "The Sword Brothers at War: Observations on the Military Activity of the Knighthood of Christ in the Conquest of Livonia and Estonia (1203–1227)." Ordines Militares. Colloquia Torunensia Historica, 0, no. 0 (2013): 27. doi:10.12775/om.2013.002.
Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War: the Military Orders. London: Folio Society, 2000.
Smith, Jerry Christopher, and William L. Urban, trans. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle. Chicago, IL: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center, Inc., 2001.
Walsh, Michael. Warriors of the Lord: the Military Orders of Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003.
Woodhouse, F. C. The Military Religious Orders of the Middle Ages. Kessinger Legacy Reprints.