LAKE PEIPUS 1242
Better known as the ‘Battle on the Ice’, this legendary defeat of the Teutonic Livonian Order became a celebrated event in Russian history
During the 13th century, medieval Russia was a myriad of republics and principalities that were vulnerable to Mongol or European invasions. One of the most attacked was the Republic of Novgorod, which was predominantly inhabited by Orthodox Christians.
The citizens of the city of Novgorod had the unusually advanced democratic right to elect a prince. This leader, who was usually chosen from outside the republic, acted as a military commander, and in 1236 the citizens elected Prince Alexander of Vladimir.
In 1240, Sweden invaded Novgorod but Alexander defeated them at the Battle of the Neva. This victory earned him the sobriquet of ‘Nevsky’ (meaning ‘of the Neva’) and the prince would be known afterwards as ‘Alexander Nevsky’. The victory at Neva enhanced Alexander’s reputation, but he intervened in domestic affairs and was temporarily exiled.
Meanwhile, the Teutonic Order was making great efforts to ‘Christianise’ the Baltic region, particularly during the Prussian Crusade. A Teutonic crusader state had been carved out in Eastern Europe, and the Order’s ambitions turned to Russia, with papal backing. Although the Novgorodians were Eastern Orthodox
Christians, they were considered to be heretical pagans. The Order’s mission to convert Novgorod to Roman Catholicism would turn the coming conflict into a theological struggle.
In 1240, Teutonic knights attacked the lands of the Republic of Novgorod and occupied Pskov, Izborsk and Koporye. These Germanic warriors were actually members of the Livonian Order, an autonomous branch of the Teutonic knights that had recently been incorporated into the larger Order following its defeat against pagans at the Battle of Saule in 1236.
The capture of Pskov had been brutal, and the Novgorodians feared for their survival. Alexander was subsequently invited to return and defend the republic. After assembling a loose army of Russians from different territories, Alexander drove the Teutonic Livonians out of Koporye in 1241 and entered what is now Estonia. He then turned east and liberated Pskov, before once again moving towards the west to force the crusaders into a premature battle.
A frozen battle
At this time, the number of Teutonic Livonians was small, with only 100 knights (along with their retainers) who were ‘Brethren’ of the Order. 800 other mounted knights were contracted warriors, and they were reinforced by formations of hundreds of Danish and German infantrymen as well as around 1,000 Estonian and Swedish mercenaries. All of the German troops were well trained, but many of the other soldiers in the Teutonic army were rampaging levies.
To oppose this force, Alexander had the numerical advantage of thousands more men and chose the battleground on a narrow, southern part of Lake Peipus. Although it was now April, the lake was still frozen with ice thick enough for infantry and light cavalry to cross. Alexander positioned himself on the lakeside shore so that he could face the enemy while they stumbled across the ice. For their part, the Teutonic army planned to attack as a formidable ‘wedge’ in order to break up Alexander’s divisions.
On 5 April 1242, the mounted Teutonic wedge attacked across the lake with the aim of killing Alexander. Although it was a simple plan, both sides knew that the disparate Russian divisions would collapse without his presence. The knights initially forced the Russian centre back, but their line did not collapse. Alexander’s horse archers skilfully attacked the Danish crusaders, who were unable to inflict great damage on their attackers. Faced with volleys of arrows, the Danes and Estonians in the Teutonic army fled, which enabled Alexander’s force to outflank the rest of the crusaders.
The Teutonic charge across the ice had been disordered, and the Russians began to pull cavalrymen off their horses as they stumbled along the slippery shore. As the knights became more exhausted, Alexander released his own druzhina cavalry, who slammed into their ranks. The crusaders were surrounded and forced back to the shoreline, where they broke and fled.
Only 50 crusader prisoners were captured compared to 400 who were killed, including 20 of the Brethren. The bloodiness of the battle was emphasised by the fact that only six of the Brethren were captured, despite ransoms for valuable prisoners being highly prized during this time.
Alexander became a legendary hero who was later canonised as an Orthodox saint, while the Livonians “sent expressions of deference” to Novgorod and concluded a peace treaty with them a year later. In a humiliating concession, the Order renounced its plans to conquer the republic and permanently halted its expansion into Russia.
“ALEXANDER POSITIONED HIMSELF ON THE LAKESIDE SHORE SO THAT HE COULD FACE THE ENEMY WHILE THEY STUMBLED ACROSS THE ICE”
BELOW: Alexander Nevsky was later canonised by the Eastern Orthodox Church and is considered a key figure in Russian medieval history
A scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film ‘Alexander Nevsky’. The famous depiction of the Battle on the Ice was actually filmed during a hot summer outside Moscow