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The Nature of Interactions Between the Polish People and the Teutonic Knights in the Years 1200-1410

By Caroline Kaczmarek

Jan matejko  bitwa pod grunwaldem

Bitwa pod Grunwaldem (Battle of Grunwald) -- By Jan Matejko -

The Teutonic Knights were a military monastic order founded after the third crusade in 1192, with the function of a Catholic military religious order.[1] However, while other military religious orders founded during the crusades focused on the Eastern Mediterranean or Western European crusades,[2] the Teutonic Knights' primary activity was fighting pagans in the Baltic region. Their interactions with the Polish people were few before the year 1230,[3] and took place primarily in the Wendish crusade, where a group of militarily-trained Catholic men that would become the Teutonic Knights fought the Western Prussian tribes and the Eastern, still pagan, Polish tribes.[4] Although this interaction was not with the catholicized Kingdom of Poland, which itself was weakened due to internal divisions, this contact began a series of interactions that would change the Baltic region politically and religiously.

Prior to the thirteenth century, the proto-Teutonic Knights traveled and fought for the papal office, beginning with the Wendish crusade in 1147,[5] thereby establishing the first prominent contact with the Polish people. The proto-Knights' contact with the region evolved to include fighting against all pagan peoples in the Baltic, which grew into the Northern crusades, a series of crusades against the Livonian, Prussian, and Finnish pagans.[6] During this time, after 1192, the headquarters of the Teutonic Order resided in the city of Acre, as the Knights still fought in the crusades against Muslims in the Eastern Mediterranean, but with the defeat of pagan tribes in Northern Europe, the Order began to permanently station knights along the Baltic coast, residing, building, and protecting castles there. These castles and lands left the Order with potential bases should the headquarters of the Order be moved and with proximity to both pagan enemies and potential Catholic allies, including the Kingdom of Poland.[7] With the capture of castles and potential lands, the headmaster of the Order, Hermann von Salza, elected 1210, expressed desire for a more permanent base in Eastern Europe for the Teutonic Knights in order to more efficiently carry out the mission of fighting the enemies of Catholicism.[8]

However, the Teutonic Order would soon desire sovereignty as well as lands of their own and began to actively seek out opportunities to gain this land after the Northern crusades. In the year 1211, The King of Hungary, Andrew II, asked for aid against the Muslim Kumans attacking the Hungarian borders.[9] The Teutonic Order fought on behalf of the Hungarian king once the request and subsequent crusade were approved by the pope; however, the Order took this as an opportunity to seize a portion of the Hungarian border lands as payment for their fighting, hoping for it to be religiously and politically independent from the Kingdom.[10] This action was highly contested by King Andrew II who again asked the pope for aid, this time in expelling the Order from Hungarian lands. Pope Gregory IX conferred with King Andrew II and agreed that the Knights had no authority not to be subject either to Hungary, when fighting for her, or the papacy, when engaged elsewhere.[11] Therefore, the Teutonic Knights were forced out of the land in 1225 by papal mandate.[12] The Order found itself at the position it had been during the Wendish crusade, fighting against pagans without the efficiency of a permanent base of operations close to the area where the pagan peoples lived. The Order, however, would soon have another opportunity to gain land and prominence, this time with the Kingdom of Poland.

The nature of the interactions between the Polish people and the Teutonic knights varied greatly between the years 1200 to 1410: at first, it consisted mostly of aid given by the Teutonic Knights to various Polish rulers, especially against the Prussian armies, which facilitated both Polish land consolidation and the Teutonic conquest of northern Prussian and Polish lands for the Teutonic knights to govern; the second stage of relations between the two sides, during the fourteenth century, consisted of trade, courier servicing, and favorable relations between the capital city of the Teutonic lands, Malbork, and the surrounding European kingdoms, including Poland; and the third and final stage, occurring in the early fifteenth century, consisted of hostile interactions between the two sides, including the Teutonic crusades against Lithuanians, including after the catholicization of Lithuania through its marriage into the Polish royal house, thus prompting war between the Teutonic Knights and the Polish-Lithuanian alliance.

The first stage of interactions between the Teutonic Knights and the Poles, lasting from 1228 to 1308, consisted mostly of aid given by the Teutonic Knights to various Polish rulers, especially against the Prussian armies, which facilitated both Polish land consolidation and the Teutonic conquest of northern Prussian and Polish lands for the Teutonic knights to govern. This stage began when, in 1228, Conrad of Masovia, the Duke of Masovia, required the services of the Teutonic Knights, wishing to protect his principality from Prussian pagan invaders.[13]

Conrad had ambitions to restore the warring principalities of Polish lands to their former glory through unification; however, he could not both fight against the Prussian pagans and protect the city of Krakow, which was the seat of Masovia and the future capital of Poland should the Duke succeed in uniting the principalities.[14] Therefore, the lands of Chelmno along the Vistula river were given to the Teutonic Knights as payment for their protection of Krakow and Masovia against the Prussian armies.[15] This land was under Teutonic rule only, and was expanded by the construction of castles and other buildings along the Vistula river and the Baltic coast, reaching across the entire modern Polish border today.[16] This land was also officially allocated to the Teutonic Knights, as it was authorized by the pope in 1235 and confirmed by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1236 by means of a golden bull.[17] The Order now had land and sovereignty in Eastern Europe, which was to prove opportune when, in the year 1291, the main headquarters of the Order in Acre fell with the city,[18] thus firmly placing the headquarters and main population of the Teutonic Knights on the border of the Kingdom of Poland, with which they would continue to interact.

The nature of interactions between the Polish people and the Teutonic Knights after the creation of a Teutonic principality remained beneficial during the thirteenth century militarily, but this did not stop the beginnings of tension from creeping into the interactions between the two parties. When King Wƚadysƚaw Łokietek of Poland asked for protection of the Tower of Wawel in Krakow and the city against Prussian armies stationed in Danzig in 1308, he called upon the Teutonic Knights.[19] While the Teutonic Knights did protect the city against the Prussian pagan armies, they also seized the opportunity to seize the city of Gdansk and the Pomeranian region from Prussian tribal groups and to incorporate them in the ever increasing Teutonic principality.[20] Before this time, the Kingdom of Poland had not been negatively affected by the Knights' conquering Prussian lands, as this could be seen as elimination of an enemy by another ally, yet from this moment onward the Teutonic Knights posed a potential threat to the Kingdom of Poland, as they did not quite perform the duties assigned to them by the agreement between the two parties, but rather augmented their own territory at Poland's expense; this marks the first negative interaction between Poland and the Order. The Teutonic Knights now had a principality that included Polish people, with a capital in Malbork obtained from the Pomeranian lands. At the same time, King Wƚadysƚaw Łokietek was able to unify the rest of the Polish lands, a task which had not been fully accomplished by Conrad of Masovia a few years prior.[21] Both parties were now set up to be potentially powerful rivals in the region, but would remain friendly for some time.

The nature of interactions between the Polish people and the Teutonic Knights in the fourteenth century continued to be both financially and militarily beneficial after the creation of a Teutonic principality. The capital city of the Teutonic Order, Malbork, north of the Kingdom of Poland, formed an official seat of Teutonic lands. Although this Teutonic principality was ruled by the grandmaster of the Teutonic Knights, it did not interfere with Polish rule at the time over the inhabitants of the area, remaining respectful of the local traditions of nobility and sovereignty, such as consultation of the local Burgesses.[22]

The Teutonic Order also engaged in many financial and administrative pursuits beginning in the fourteenth century, such as minting money, trading, and establishing a courier service, which benefited both the Knights and the Poles. The Knights minted their own money after gaining substantial land, allowing trade in the region around Malbork to flourish as it increased in range, especially in the trade of cereal grains and wood from Malbork, and the refinement and export of amber found on the Baltic coast.[23] The Kingdom of Poland also achieved a flourishing trade in cereals, wood, and amber during this time, and experienced a financial blossoming of the amber trade especially, since it was no longer inhibited by the presence of hostile Prussian pagan forces near the Baltic coast. Additionally, the combination of the newly minted Polish grosz,[24] first appearing in the fourteenth century, and the Teutonic coins made for a more standardized trade across Central Europe, allowing for financial gain for the entire region. Direct trade between the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland also existed, primarily in amber, which was refined to be an adornment for prayer books by the Knights, and refined to be jewelry or decoration by the Poles.[25]

A courier service was also established by the Teutonic Knights, at first as a way of communicating efficiently between different castles and towns of the Teutonic principality, but soon widening its reach to the whole of Europe.[26] Communication via mail in the Middle Ages was not only inefficient, taking a very long time to be transported over land, but also uncertain, since protection against thieves and other perils on the road was not guaranteed. Thanks to the use of the fast horses trained by the Teutonic Knights, combined with the military training of the Knights themselves, messages were delivered faster and more successfully than before.[27] Communications between the Kingdom of Poland and the surrounding kingdoms were therefore much more efficient and timelier, positively affecting any negotiations between the Kingdom and the Order and enabling the Kingdom of Poland to expand.[28] When the Kingdom of Poland or the Teutonic Knights fought against another party, they were aided by the efficient courier service provided by the Knights.[29]

The two sides also shared a common aim during the fourteenth century, for throughout the whole of this century, both the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom Poland remained at odds with the pagan population of Northern and Central Europe, and were determined either to conquer or to catholicize it. The Teutonic Knights focused their crusading efforts on the northern Baltic and Prussian pagan groups, while the Kingdom of Poland expanded her territory to the east, conquering the pagan lands of Eastern Europe, today's Belarus and Ukraine.[30] With the pagan west being fought by the Knights and the pagan east by the Poles, both parties were operating with mutually beneficial goals in mind, strengthening both of their positions in Europe and positively affecting each other. For a period of nearly one hundred years, the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland thus peacefully existed alongside one another, complementarily pursuing a common goal; however, this would soon change with the death of the Polish King, Louis I.

The nature of interactions between the Polish people and the Teutonic Knights turned hostile in the early fifteenth century, beginning with the death of Louis I, who did not leave behind a male heir or clear instructions as to which female heir should rule. The death of Louis I required the choosing of a new ruler for Poland.[31] It was initially thought that Catherine of Hungary, the eldest daughter of Louis I, would be chosen for the position, but her marriage to the King of Hungary put her out of contention for the throne. Her younger sister, Jadwiga, was without a husband at the time of Louis's death,[32] allowing the construction of an advantageous marriage between Jadwiga and Wƚadysƚaw Jagieƚƚo, the grand duke of Lithuania. Jadwiga, being a pious Catholic, would only marry Jagieƚƚo if he adopted Catholicism, without which the Polish people would also not accept him. This prompted the promising of conversion to Catholicism of Wƚadysƚaw Jagieƚƚo, the influence of which prompted the conversion of Lithuania as a whole, under an agreement called the Treaty of Krewno, signed in 1385.[33] After the signing, Jagieƚƚo and Jadwiga were crowned King and Queen of Poland. With the coronation of the Lithuanian Grand Duke to the Polish throne, Lithuania underwent a baptism from a formally pagan state to a Catholic one, the two kingdoms were joined into one Polish-Lithuanian Alliance, in which both countries agreed to support one another militarily, no matter who the opposing party.[34]

The Teutonic Order had invaded and fought the Lithuanian people since the Order's establishment of a Teutonic principality, and was eager to gain additional lands through the conquest of Samogitia, an eastern Lithuanian principality;[35] with the catholicization of Lithuania, however, the Knights could no longer operate under the pretext of converting pagan peoples, and their territorial aspirations soon brought them into conflict with Poland, the new ally of Lithuania. For the Teutonic Knights were intent on conquering Samogitia regardless of Lithuania's conversion, and therefore attempted to spread rumors about the illegitimacy of the conversion in order to continue fighting in Lithuania, thereby inciting the anger of the Kingdom of Poland.[36] A Lithuanian revolt began in 1409 in Samogitian land that had been claimed by the Teutonic Knights. With Lithuania and the Teutonic Knights nearing full-fledged war with one another, the Kingdom of Poland made her own intentions clear.

Once the revolt in Samogitia began, both King Jagieƚƚo and the Archbishop of Poland, Mikolaj Chirowski, condemned the Knights' actions. The grandmaster of the Knights at the time, Ulrich von Jungingan, showed no sign of stopping further fighting in Samogitia, thus causing Chirowski to send a letter to the grandmaster stating the Polish intent to fight the Teutonic Knights if incursions against Lithuania continued; Jungingan responded that he would rather fight both kingdoms than stand down.[37] The Teutonic Knights declared war on Poland in response to the archbishop's letter and invaded the north of Poland, directly south of the Order's territory. King Wƚadysƚaw Jagieƚƚo, joined by Lithuanian troops, fought back against the Teutonic forces, solidifying the Polish-Lithuanian Alliance.[38] Both parties called upon other European kings for support in the war.

While no support was given to the Polish-Lithuanian Alliance, support for the Teutonic Order ranged far and wide; The King of Hungary, the King of Bohemia, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Princes of Prussia, and all other major central European powers backed the Teutonic Knights.[39] Even though these powers supported the Order through words, few gave troops that could help the Order win the war. In actuality, the Teutonic Knights gained the military support only of Sigismund of Luxemburg, the King of Hungary, among all the pledged supporters. Yet, although the Polish-Lithuanian Alliance did not gain any allies, political or otherwise, the military strategies of the Teutonic Knights were soon discovered by the superior Polish network of spies in Teutonic lands.[40] The information gained by these Polish-Lithuanian spies enabled the Polish-Lithuanian Alliance to craft a military plan that resulted in a great victory for the Alliance in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald, or Tannenberg.

Initially, as a large-scale battle between the opposing sides became imminent, the Teutonic forces planned to fortify a bridge near the Kurzetnik, an easily defendable village near the Drewentz River and a major boundary between Polish and Teutonic lands, in order to better prepare for what the Order believed was going to be the next large battle between the forces. The Polish-Lithuanian troops, however, discovered Teutonic outposts near the river and struck first against the Teutonic Order in another village, Dabrowno. Dabrowno opened a path for the Polish-Lithuanian forces to get to Malbork, the capital city of the Order, but only if Grunwald, a town between Dabrowno and Malbork, was taken first. The largest battle in the war, and at the time the largest battle Christian Europe had ever seen, took place in 1410 at the battle of Grunwald, seen now as the deciding factor in determining who would gain the upper hand in the war. Feigning that their troops had split up, the Polish-Lithuanian side tricked the Order into weakening their position at Grunwald, and Polish and Lithuanian forces then managed to surround the remaining troops of the Teutonic Knights, killing Grandmaster Ulrich von Jungingan and many other high ranking officials.[41] The battle was won for the Polish-Lithuanian side, and the city of Malbork was left without troops and without many of the reinforcements that had been expected to arrive after the battle of Grunwald.[42]

The remaining troops of the Teutonic army and the arriving troops of the Hungarian army regrouped at Malbork and reinforced the city against the coming Polish-Lithuanian forces. As the Polish-Lithuanian forces laid siege to the city, Herman von Boyen was named the new grandmaster and successfully defended the city against them, coming to a truce two months after the siege began.[43] A peace treaty, called the "Peace of the Thorn," was signed between the forces in 1411, imposing fines and land losses against the Teutonic Order and bringing the war to a close.[44] Although peace was officially established, the Teutonic Order and the Kingdom of Poland would continue to be at odds many times afterwards, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ceasing their hostile interactions only with the gradual dissolution of the Teutonic principality, completed in 1809, as all of its lands were incorporated either into Poland or Prussia.[45]

In conclusion, the interactions between the Kingdom of Poland and the Teutonic Knights shaped the political and religious climate of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe for hundreds of years, from their first contact with one another in the Wendish crusade, through the battle of Grunwald, and to the cessation of the Order's political rule. The great change in the nature of these interactions from a mutually beneficial relationship to mutually hostile alliances arrayed against one another, caused first a strong Polish-Lithuanian Alliance and, eventually, a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that would survive until 1795. It also caused, concomitantly, a weakening of the power of the Teutonic Order, which over the course of four centuries gradually lost financial resources, lands, and its military aspect.

Another long-term effect of this relationship was that Catholicism became much more widely established in Eastern and Northern Europe through the cooperation of the Teutonic Knights and the Kingdom of Poland, fully converting an entire country, Lithuania, and converting many smaller pagan tribes and groups around the region. Both Poland and the Teutonic Order continue to exist in modern times as, on the one hand, the Republic of Poland and, on the other, a purely religious, non-military Teutonic Order dedicated to charitable work. The interactions between this Catholic military religious order and the Kingdom of Poland in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries forever changed history, bringing about the crystallization of the Polish polity, the conversions of the Baltic regions, and the joining of these areas to Latin Christian Europe, changing both territorial and cultural borders forever.


[1] Darius von Güttner-Sporzyński, Poland, Holy War, and the Piast Monarchy, 1100-1230 (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2014), 232.

[2] The first Catholic military religious orders were the Hospitallers and the Templars, who along with the Teutonic Knights, had headquarters in Acre in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although each order fought in the crusades against Muslim armies with the intent to take back or protect Outremer, the Teutonic Order's focus shifted elsewhere, while the Hospitaller and Templar focus stayed in Outremer. See Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. "Teutonic Order," ¶3.

[3] For the purposes of this paper, when the Polish people are mentioned, the Polish people under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Poland are being referenced. There existed Polish tribes that were pagan and not under the King of Poland, and there were peoples in the Kingdom of Poland who were not Polish or Catholic, but these people are not currently being discussed.

[4] Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., "Poland," ¶2.

[5] Mihai Dragnea, The Wendish Crusade, 1147: The Development of Crusading Ideology in the Twelfth Century (New York: Routledge, 2020), 2.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Christophe Talczewski, Teutonic Knight (Point du Jour International, 2011),

[8] Ibid.

[9] David Thomas and John Chesworth, eds., Christian Muslim Relations: A Biographical History (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015), 198.

[10] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[11] Richard Spence, "Pope Gregory IX and the Crusade on the Baltic," The Catholic Historical Review 69, no. 1 (1983):1.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. "Teutonic Order," ¶2.

[14] von Güttner-Sporzyński, Poland, Holy War, and the Piast Monarchy, 234.

[15] The official treaty that Conrad of Masovia signed in order to do business with the Teutonic Knights was been scrutinized by many historians. Some believe that the treaty was fabricated entirely and the Teutonic Knights simply seized the land of Chelmno, some believe that Conrad of Masovia was coerced into signing the treaty, and some believe that the treaty was fabricated to a certain extent, but that Conrad of Masovia was not coerced into signing. When analyzing the reactions of the papal office and the non-existent retaliation of the Kingdom of Poland against the "seizing" of their lands, this treaty is considered not to be fabricated and not signed under coercion. See Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[16] Ibid.

[17]Piotr Gorecki and Nancy van Deusen, eds., Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages: A Cultural History (London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2009), 138.

[18] Jessalynn Bird, Edward Peters, and James M. Powell, eds., Crusade and Christendom: Annotated Documents in Translation from Innocent III to the Fall of Acre, 1187-1291 (Philadelphia: University of Penn Press, 2013), 10.

[19] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[20] Adam Kożuchowski, "The Devil Wears White: Teutonic Knights and the Problem of Evil in Polish Historiography," East Central Europe 46, no. 1 (2019): 34.

[21] Jacek Jerzy Kanski, History of Poland: A Concise Outline (Leicestershire: Matador, 2017), 27.

[22] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[23] The amber trade of the Baltic states has a long history, as ancient resins crystallized and turned into amber deposits along the Baltic coast. The peoples that reside where the modern countries of Poland, Germany, and Lithuania are now placed have for thousands of years gathered, refined, and traded amber jewelry, decorations, and other goods with the surrounding tribes and countries, financially benefiting greatly. In the still-standing Malbork castle, an entire museum is dedicated to the preservation of amber artifacts and to the teaching of the historic amber trade; see fig. 17 in Rachel King, "Rethinking the Oldest Surviving Amber in the West" The Burlington Magazine 155, no. 1328 (Nov. 2013): 756-62.

[24] Marek Pielach, "The History of the Polish Zloty Began Almost 500 Years Ago,", 15 Aug. 2018,

[25] King, Rethinking the Oldest Surviving Amber, 756.

[26] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Herbert Charles O'Neill, ed., Stokes' Complete One Volume Encyclopædia (New York: Frederick A. Stokes

Company, 1914), 1244.

[29] Charles O'Neill, Stokes' Complete, 1244.

[30] Gorecki and van Deusen, eds., Central and Eastern Europe, 560.

[31] Robert F. McNamara, "Queen St. Jadwiga of Poland," Saint Katari, 2015,, ¶2.

[32] Although Jadwiga was not married at the time, she had been living with William of Austria from 1378-1380 in his country, with the intent of continuing to reside there after her elder sister's marriage to the next King of Poland. This betrothal, much to the chagrin of William, was broken off by Jadwiga's father after it became clear that she would have to rule Poland; see ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Robert Frost, The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, I: The Making of the Polish-Lithuanian Union, 1385–1569 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 245.

[35] Encyclopædia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. "Teutonic Order," ¶18.

[36] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Nicholas Agrait, "Jan Duglosz, The Battle of Tannenberg or Grunwald (1410)," De Re Militari: The Society for Medieval Military History, April 22, 2013, ¶34,

[39] Agrait, "Jan Duglosz," ¶45.

[40] Although both forces sent spies into their rival's ranks and courts, the Polish spies proved to be most successful, providing key information about the military plans of the Order and tracking the movements of the Knights through both Teutonic and Polish lands; see Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[41] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[42] Agrait, "Jan Duglosz," ¶51.

[43] Talczewski, Teutonic Knights.

[44] The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem, "Historical Documents of the Teutonic Order,", 2017,

[45] Kożuchowski, "The Devil Wears White," 110.