Bet­ter known as the ‘Bat­tle on the Ice’, this leg­endary de­feat of the Teu­tonic Livo­nian Or­der be­came a cel­e­brated event in Rus­sian his­tory

History of War - - THE TEUTONIC ORDER -

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.


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

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