Teutonic Knights

The Teutonic Knights or Teutonic Order is a German Roman Catholic religious order formed at the end of the 12th century in Acre in Palestine. During the Middle Ages they were a crusading military order and wore white surcoats with a black cross.

Their name in different languages includes:

  • Latin: Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum Ierosolimitanorum, "Order of the Teutonic House of Mary in Jerusalem"; Ordo Teutonicus, "German Order"
  • German: Deutsche Orden, "German Order"; officially Orden der Brüder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem, "Order of the Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem"
  • Belarusian: Тэўтонскі ордэн, "Teutonic Order"
  • Estonian: Saksa ordu, "German Order"
  • Hungarian: Német Lovagrend, "German Knighthood"
  • Latvian: Vācu ordenis, "German Order"
  • Lithuanian: Kryžiuočių Ordinas, "Order of Crusaders"
  • Polish: Zakon Krzyżacki, "Order of the Crossbearers"
  • Russian: Тевтонский орден, "Teutonic Order"
  • Swedish: Tyska orden, "German Order"
  • Swiss German, Tütsche Ordä, "German Order"

The order played an important role in the Middle East controlling the port tolls of Acre. After Christian forces were defeated, the order moved to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend against the Cumans. They were expelled in 1225 after allegedly attempting to place themselves under papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.

Following the Golden Bull of Rimini, Grand Master Hermann von Salza and Duke Konrad I of Masovia made a joint invasion of Prussia in 1226 to Christianize the Baltic Old Prussians. The knights were then accused of cheating Polish rule and creating an independent monastic state. After basing itself in Prussia, the order became involved in many campaigns against its neighbours, the Kingdom of Poland, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Novgorod Republic. As well as their feudal levies the order had a strong urban economy, hired many mercenaries, and became a naval power in the Baltic Sea.

In 1410, a Polish-Lithuanian army decisively defeated the order and broke its military power at the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg). The order steadily declined until 1525 when Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg resigned and converted to Lutheranism to become Duke of Prussia. The Grand Masters continued to preside over the order's considerable holdings in Germany until 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its dissolution and the order lost its last secular holdings. The order continued to exist, headed by Habsburgs through World War I, and today operates primarily with charitable aims in Central Europe.

The knights sometimes used a cross pattée as their coat of arms; this image was later used for military decoration and insignia by the Kingdom of Prussia and Germany (see Iron Cross).


Panorama view of the order's Marienburg Castle in Malbork, Poland
Panorama view of the order's Marienburg Castle in Malbork, Poland


The order was formed out of knights and priests in 1190 by merchants of Bremen and Lübeck for the establishment of a hospital for the care of German pilgrims during the Siege of Acre of the Third Crusade. In 1198 the head of the order became known as the Hochmeister or Grand Master. They received Papal orders for crusades to take and hold Jerusalem for Latin Christianity and defend the Holy Land against the Muslim Saracens. During the rule of Grand Master Hermann von Salza (1209-1239) the order changed from being a hospice brotherhood for pilgrims to primarily a military order.

They were based at Acre. Other fortresses of the order in the Middle East were Montfort (Starkenberg) northeast of Acre, which served to defend the route between Jerusalem and the Mediterannean Sea, and a castle near Tarsus in Armenia Minor. The order received donations of land in the Holy Roman Empire (especially in present-day Germany and Italy), Greece, and Palestine.

Emperor Frederick II granted his close friend Hermann von Salza the additional title of Reichsfürst, or "Prince of the Empire", enabling the Grand Master to negotiate with nobility as an equal. During Frederick's coronation as King of Jerusalem in 1225, Teutonic Knights served as his escort in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Salza read the emperor's proclamation in both French and German. However, the Teutonic Knights were never as influential in Outremer as the older Knights Templar and Hospitallers.

In 1211, Andrew II of Hungary accepted their services and granted them the district of Burzenland in Transylvania. Andrew had been involved in negotiations for the marriage of his daughter with the son of Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia, whose vassals included the family of Hermann von Salza. Led by a brother called Theoderich, the order defended Hungary against the neighbouring Cumans and settled colonists known as the Transylvanian Saxons among their wooden fortresses. In 1224 they petitioned Pope Honorius III to be placed directly under the authority of the Papal See, rather than of the King of Hungary. Angered and alarmed at their growing power, Andrew responded by expelling them in 1225, although he allowed the Transylvanian Saxons to remain.

In Prussia

Frederick II allows the order to invade Prussia, by P. Janssen
Frederick II allows the order to invade Prussia, by P. Janssen

In 1226 Konrad I, Duke of Masovia in west-central Poland, appealed to the knights to defend his borders and subdue the pagan Baltic Prussians, allowing the Teutonic Knights use of Culmerland (Chełmno Land) as a base for their campaign. Hermann von Salza felt Prussia would be a good training ground for his knights for the wars against the Muslims in Outremer. With the Golden Bull of Rimini, Emperor Frederick II bestowed on the order a special imperial privilege for the possession of Prussia, including Culmerland, with nominal papal sovereignty. Soon the Teutonic Knights assimilated the smaller Order of Dobrzyń, which had been established earlier by Konrad.

The conquest of Prussia was accomplished with great bloodshed over more than 50 years, during which native Prussians who remained unbaptised were subjugated, killed, or exiled. Fighting between the knights and the Prussians was ferocious; chronicles of the order state the Prussians would "roast captured brethren alive in their armour, like chestnuts, before the shrine of a local god".[1] Christianized Prussians received the same rights as the newcomer settlers from the Empire. Conversion to Christianity was largely nominal and sometimes did not entail more than baptism.

Drawing of the Teutonic Knights' Castle Marienburg (Malbork)
Drawing of the Teutonic Knights' Castle Marienburg (Malbork)

The order ruled Prussia under permits issued by the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor as a sovereign monastic state, comparable to the arrangement of the Knights Hospitallers in Rhodes and later in Malta. Previous documents in 1224 had put the inhabitants of "Terra Prussia"' as Reichsfreie, or under authority of only the emperor and the empire.

In order to make up for losses from plague and to replace the partially exterminated native population, the order encouraged the immigration of thousands of colonists from the Holy Roman Empire (mostly Germans, Flemish, and Dutch) and from Masovia (Masovians, the later Masurians). The colonists included nobles, burghers, and peasants, and the surviving Old Prussians were gradually assimilated through Germanization. The settlers founded numerous towns and cities on former Prussian settlements. They also built a number of castles (Ordensburgen) from which the order could defeat uprisings of Old Prussians, as well as continue its attacks on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, with whom the order was often at war during the 14th and 15th centuries. Major towns founded by the order included Königsberg, founded in 1255 in honor of King Otakar II of Bohemia on the site of a destroyed Prussian settlement, Allenstein, Elbing, and Memel.

When the Livonian Order merged with the Teutonic Order in 1237, its nominal territorial rule extended over Prussia, Livonia, Semigalia, and Estonia. Their next aim was to convert Orthodox Russia to Roman Catholicism, but after the knights suffered a disastrous defeat in the Battle on Lake Peipus (1242) at the hands of Prince Alexander Nevsky of Novgorod, the idea had to be dropped.

Against Lithuania

The Teutonic Knights began to direct their campaigns against pagan Lithuania, especially after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Acre in 1291; the knights moved their headquarters to Venice, from which they planned the recovery of Outremer.[2] Because medieval western Lithuania (most of modern Lithuania) remained non-Christian until the end of the 14th century, much later than the rest of eastern Europe, many knights from western European countries such as England and France journeyed to Prussia to participate in the seasonal campaigns (reyse or Reise) against the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some of these knights and nobles campaigned against pagans to obtain remission for their sins, while others fought to gain military experience.

Warfare between the Teutonic Knights and the pagan Lithuanians was especially brutal. Non-Christians were seen as lacking rights possessed by Christians. Because enslavement of non-Christians was seen as acceptable at the time and the subdued native Prussians demanded land or payment, the Teutonic Knights often used captured pagan Lithuanians for forced labor. The contemporary Austrian poet Peter Suchenwirt described treatment he witnessed of pagans by the knights:

"Women and children were taken captive; What a jolly medley could be seen: Many a woman could be seen, Two children tied to her body, One behind and one in front; On a horse without spurs Barefoot had they ridden here; The heathens were made to suffer: Many were captured and in every case, Were their hands tied together They were led off, all tied up - Just like hunting dogs".[3]

Against Poland

A dispute over the succession of the Duchy of Pomerelia, embroiled the order in further conflict in the beginning of the 14th century. Opposed to King Władysław I the Elbow-high of Poland, the Pomeranian nobles requested help from the Margraves of Brandenburg who thus occupied in 1308 all of Pomerelia except for the citadel of Danzig (Gdańsk). Because Władysław was unable to come to the defense of Danzig, the Teutonic Knights were called upon to liberate the region from the control of Brandenburg. The knights, under Prussian Landmeister Heinrich von Plötzke, evicted the Brandenburgers from Danzig in September 1308, but discontent grew in the city when the order did not quickly relinquish control to Poland. The following month the knights suppressed an uprising with great bloodshed, especially of the German merchants in the city. Heinrich von Plötzke presented Władysław with a bill for 10,000 marks of silver for the order's help, but the Polish king was only willing to offer 300 marks.[4] On 13 September 1309 the order purchased from Brandenburg for 10,000 marks claims to the castles of Danzig, Schwetz (Świecie), and Dirschau (Tczew), and their hinterlands.[4] Control of Pomerelia allowed the knights to connect their monastic state with the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Crusading reinforcements and supplies were able to travel from the Imperial territory of Western Pomerania through Pomerelia to Prussia, while Poland's access to the Baltic Sea was blocked. While Poland had mostly been an ally of the knights against the pagan Prussians and Lithuanians, the capture of Pomerelia turned the kingdom into a dedicated enemy of the order.[5]

The capture of Danzig marked a new phase in the history of the Teutonic Knights. The persecution and abolition of the powerful Knights Templar beginning in 1307 worried the Teutonic Knights, but control of Pomerelia allowed them to move their headquarters in 1309 from Venice to Marienburg (Malbork) on the Nogat River, outside of the reach of secular powers. The position of Prussian Landmeister was merged with that of the Grand Master. The Pope began investigating into misconduct by the knights, although the order was defended by able lawyers and jurists. Along with the campaigns against the Lithuanians, the knights faced vengeful Poland and legal threats from the Papacy.[2]

The Treaty of Kalisz of 1343 ended open war between the Teutonic Knights and Poland. The Knights relinquished Kuyavia and Dobrzyń Land to Poland, but retained Culmerland and Pomerelia.

Height of power

In 1337 Emperor Louis IV allegedly granted the order the imperial privilege to conquer all Lithuania and Russia. During the reign of Grand Master Winrich von Kniprode (1351-1382), the order reached the peak of its international prestige and hosted numerous foreign crusaders and nobility.

King Albert of Sweden conceded Gotland to the order as a pledge (similar to a fiefdom), with the understanding that they would eliminate the pirating Victual Brothers from their strategic island base. An invasion force under Grand Master Konrad von Jungingen conquered the island in 1398, destroyed Visby, and drove the Victual Brothers out of Gotland and the Baltic Sea.

Battle of Grunwald, by Wojciech Kossak
Battle of Grunwald, by Wojciech Kossak

In 1386 Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania was baptised into Roman Catholic Christianity and married Queen Jadwiga of Poland, thus becoming Władysław II, King of Poland. This initiated an alliance between the two countries and created a potentially formidable opponent for the Teutonic Knights. The order managed to play Jogaila and his cousin Vytautas against each other, but this strategy failed as Vytautas began to suspect the order was planning to annex parts of his territory.

The baptism of Władysław II began the official conversion of Lithuania to Christianity. Although the crusading rationale for the order's state had ended as Prussia and Lithuania had become officially Christian, the order's feuds and wars with Lithuania and Poland continued. The Lizard Union was created in 1397 by Polish nobles within Culmerland to undermine the order's rule.

In 1407 the Teutonic Order had reached its greatest territorial extent and included the lands of Prussia, Pomerelia, Samogitia, Courland, Livonia, Estonia, Gotland, Dagö, Ösel, and the Neumark, pawned by Brandenburg in 1402.


In 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald (also known as the Battle of Tannenberg), a united Polish-Lithuanian army, led by Władysław II Jagiełło and Vytautas, decisively defeated the order in the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War. Grand Master Ulrich von Jungingen and most of the order's higher dignitaries fell on the battlefield (50 out of 60). The Polish-Lithuanian army then besieged the capital of the order, Marienburg (Malbork) castle, but was unable to take it owing to the resistance of Heinrich von Plauen. When the First Peace of Toruń was signed in 1411, the order managed to retain essentially all of its territories, although the knights' prestige was irreparably damaged.

While Poland and Lithuania were growing in power, the Teutonic Knights dwindled through infighting. The Teutonic Knights were forced to put in place high taxation to pay an indemnity equivalent to £850,000, but did not give the cities sufficient requested representation. The authoritarian and reforming Hochmeister Heinrich von Plauen was forced from power and replaced with Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg, although the new Hochmeister was unable to revive the order's fortunes; after the Gollub War the knights lost some small border regions and renounced all claims to Samogitia in the 1422 Treaty of Melno. Austrian and Bavarian knights feuded with those of the Rhineland, who likewise bickered with Low German-speaking Saxons, from whose ranks the Hochmeister was usually chosen. The western Prussian lands of the Vistula River Valley were even ravaged by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars. Some Teutonic Knights were sent to battle the rebels, but were almost invariably defeated by the Bohemian infantry.[6]

In 1454 the Prussian Confederation consisting of the gentry and burghers of western Prussia rose up against the order, beginning the Thirteen Years' War. Much of Prussia was devastated in the war, during the course of which the order returned Neumark to Brandenburg in 1455. In the Second Peace of Toruń at war's end, the defeated order recognized the Polish crown's rights over western Prussia (subsequently Royal Prussia) while retaining eastern Prussia under nominal Polish overlordship. Because Marienburg was lost to the order, their base was moved to Königsberg in Sambia.

Eastern Prussia was also lost to the order when Hochmeister Albert of Prussia, after another unsuccessful war with Poland, converted to Lutheranism in 1525, secularized the order's remaining Prussian territories, and assumed from King Sigismund I the Old of Poland the hereditary rights to Ducal Prussia as a vassal of the Polish Crown in the Prussian Homage. Ducal Prussia was both the first Protestant state and a fief of Catholic Poland.

Castle of the Teutonic Order in Bad Mergentheim.
Castle of the Teutonic Order in Bad Mergentheim.

Although they had lost control of all of their Prussian lands, the Teutonic Order retained its territories within the Holy Roman Empire and Livonia, although the Livonian branch retained considerable autonomy. Many of the Imperial possessions were ruined in the Peasants' War from 1524-1525, and subsequently confiscated by Protestant territorial princes.[2] The Livonian territory was then partitioned by neighboring powers during the Livonian War; in 1561 the Livonian Master Gotthard Kettler secularized the southern Livonian possessions of the order to create the Duchy of Courland, also a vassal of Poland.

After the loss of Prussia in 1525, the Teutonic Knights concentrated on their possessions in the Holy Roman Empire. Since they held no contiguous territory, they developed a three tier administration management system: A rule district was combined into a commandery and was subordinated to a commander (komtur). Several commanderies were combined to form a bailiwick headed by a landkomtur. After the Protestant Reformation, the Teutonic Knights were tridenominational and there were Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed bailiwicks. All of the Teutonic Knights' possessions were subordinate to the Hochmeister whose seat was in Bad Mergentheim. Altogether there were twelve German bailiwicks including Thuringia, Alden Biesen (in present-day Belgium), Hesse, Saxony, Westphalia, Franconia, Koblenz, Alsace-Burgundy, An der Etsch und im Gebirge (Tyrol), Utrecht, Lorraine, and Austria. Outside of German areas were the bailiwicks of Sicily, Apulia, Lombardy, Bohemia, "Romania" (Greece), and Armenia-Cyprus. The order gradually lost control of these holdings until, by 1810, only the bailiwicks in Tyrol and Austria remained.

With the abdication of Albert of Prussia, Walter von Cronberg became the Deutschmeister in 1527 and the Hochmeister in 1530. Emperor Charles V combined the two positions in 1531, creating the title Hoch- und Deutschmeister and granting the order's Grand Master the honor of being a Prince of the Empire.[1] A new Grand Magistery was established in Mergentheim in Württemberg, which was attacked during the Peasants' War. The order also helped Charles V against the Schmalkaldic League. After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, membership in the order was open to Protestants, although the majority of brothers remained Catholic.[5]

The Hochmeisters, often members of the great German families (and, after 1761, by members of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine), continued to preside over the order's considerable holdings in Germany. Teutonic Knights from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia were used as battlefield commanders leading mercenaries for the Habsburg Monarchy during the Ottoman wars in Europe. The military history of the Teutonic Knights ended in 1809, when Napoleon I of France ordered their dissolution and the order lost their remaining secular holdings to Napoleon's allies.

Contemporary Teutonic Order

The order continued to exist in Austria. It was only in 1834 that the organization was again officially called the Deutscher Ritterorden ("German Knightly Order"), although most of their possessions were worldly by then. Beginning in 1804 they were headed by hereditary members of the Habsburg dynasty until the 1923 resignation of the Grand Master, Archduke Eugen of Austria.

In 1929 the Teutonic Knights were converted to a purely spiritual religious order and were renamed Deutscher Orden ("German Order"). After Austria's annexation by Nazi Germany, the Teutonic Order was abolished throughout the Großdeutsches Reich from 1938-1945, although the Nazis used imagery of the medieval Teutonic Knights for propaganda purposes. The order survived in Italy, however, and was reinstituted in Germany and Austria in 1945.

The current Grand Master, Bruno Platter
The current Grand Master, Bruno Platter

By the end of the 1990s, the Teutonic Order had developed into a charitable organization and incorporated numerous clinics. They sponsor excavation and tourism projects in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In 2000 the German chapter of the Teutonic Order declared for insolvency and its upper management was dismissed. A 2002-2003 investigatory panel by the Landtag of Bavaria in 2002-2003 was inconclusive.

The order currently consists of approximately 1,000 members, including 100 priests, 200 nuns, and 700 associates. While the priests are organized into five provinces (Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia) and predominantly provide spiritual guidance, the nuns primarily care for the ill and for the aged. Associates are active in Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy. Many of the priests care for German-speaking communities outside of Germany and Austria, especially in Italy and Slovenia; in this sense the Teutonic Order has returned to its 12th century roots- the spiritual and physical care of Germans in foreign lands.[5] The General Abbot of the order, who also carries the title of Hochmeister or Grand Master, is Bruno Platter.

The current seat of the Grand Master is the Deutschordenskirche in Vienna. Near the Stephansdom in the Austrian capital is the Central Archive of the Teutonic Order and a museum dedicated to the knights. Since 1996 there has also been a museum dedicated to the Teutonic Knights at their former castle in Bad Mergentheim in Germany, as the town was the seat of the Grand Master from 1525-1809.

Cultural references

Teutonic Knights before the Battle of Grunwald, screenshot from the Polish film Krzyżacy
Teutonic Knights before the Battle of Grunwald, screenshot from the Polish film Krzyżacy
  • German nationalism often invoked the imagery of Teutonic Knights, especially in the context of territorial conquest from eastern neighbours of Germany, and conflict with nations of Slavic origins, who were believed to be of lower development and lacking any culture. The German historian Heinrich von Treitschke used imagery of the Teutonic Knights to promote racist and Polonophobic ideas. Such imagery and symbols were adopted by many middle-class Germans who supported German nationalism. During the Weimar Republic, associations and organisations of this nature contributed to laying the groundwork for the formation of Nazi Germany.[7]
  • Emperor William II of Germany posed for a photo in 1902 in the garb of a monk from the Teutonic Order, climbing up the stairs in the reconstructed Marienburg Castle as a symbol of the German Empire's policy.[7]
  • The order also appears in the historical novel Poland by James A. Michener, who wrote in the book that Poland should have conquered Prussia. After having been a guest in Poland, Michener wrote the novel, which is often wrongly assumed to depict actual history.
  • The colours of the order became the colours of Prussia and later, with red for the Hanseatic cities added, the colours of Imperial Germany. The German national football team still wears black and white, which can indirectly be linked to the Teutonic Order.
Field altar of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order.
Field altar of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order.

Coat of arms gallery

Seals and coins


  1. ^ a b Seward, Desmond. The Monks of War: The Military Religious Orders. Penguin Books. London, 1995. ISBN 0-14-019501-7
  2. ^ a b c d Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. Penguin Books. London, 1997. ISBN 0-14-026653-4
  3. ^ Sainty, Guy Stair. The Teutonic Order of Holy Mary in Jerusalem.
  4. ^ a b Geschichte-Feuchtwangen.de. "Die Expansion des Ordens von Preußen nach Westen."
  5. ^ a b c Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: A Military History. Greenhill Books. London, 2003. ISBN 1-85367-535-0
  6. ^ Stier, Hans-Erich, Ernst Kirsten, Wilhelm Wühr. Heinz Quirin, Werner Trillmilch, Gerhard Czybulka, Hermann Pinnow, and Hans Ebeling. Westermanns Atlas zur Weltgeschichte: Vorzeit / Altertum, Mittelalter, Neuzeit. Georg Westermann Verlag. Braunschweig, 1963
  7. ^ a b Mówią wieki. "Biała leganda czernago krzyża".
  • Gore, Terry. Military Heritage, August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, pp.28 to 33.
  • This article incorporates text translated from the corresponding German Wikipedia article as of June 6, 2006.

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