It’s early autumn of the year 1236. Somewhere in the Eastern Baltic, on their route back home, expedition of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword encounters a significant gathering of native warriors. Upon consulting with his officers, the expedition’s commander – master Volkwin orders his men to cross the river and storm the rising number of pagan warriors. The most important battle of the Swordbrothers was about to begin.
Conqueror’s Blade is set in a vast medieval world, the Scourge of Winter commencing the 21st of December, a free update pitting you against a new and deadly enemy. It’s the first decade of the 13th century. The inhospitable swamps and forests of the Eastern Baltic shores are inhabited by Finnic and Baltic tribes. Together these tribes collectively formed one of the last bastions of paganism in Europe,
History Of Saule
largely untouched by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the second half of the 12th century, several modest attempts to spread the gospel among the Baltic heathen were carried out by both Danes and Germans. But regardless of how the holy word was preached, either by the cross, or by the sword, these early attempts failed to bring lasting results. This status quo was about to change at the turn of the century,
when the newly appointed bishop Albert of Livonia relocated his seat to a more convenient location a small trading post named Riga, lying at the mouth of Daugava river. Unlike his predecessors, Albert was by far a better administrator and politician, who greatly expanded and fortified the town of Riga, which in the span of just a few decades became a major centre of trade and power in the Eastern Baltic littoral. Since medieval Livonia was quite a popular crusading destination for groups of German knights,
who regarded it as a less taxing means of becoming a crusader in comparison to the long, strenuous voyage to the Holy Land, Bishop Albert came up with the idea of creating a military order to unite and control arriving German nobles. And so, the Order of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword was established to support Albert’s efforts to build a dominant power in the region. Over the following years, Bishop Albert,
operating under the guise of spreading the Christian faith, and assisted by the rising numbers of Sword Brethren, was able to extend his power over the lands inhabited by the Baltic and Finnic tribes. Initially, the crusaders ably exploited the inferior military organization and lack of unity of the Baltic people, who, in the absence of a common threat had been traditionally busy fighting amongst themselves.
But in the second decade of the 13th century, the territorial gains of the northern crusaders slowed down considerably. At the time, Bishop Albert, together with Volkwin, the master of the Sword Brethren, concentrated on expanding to the north, but the push against the Estonian tribes, who inhabited barely accessible marshy areas, proved to be long and arduous. Further intensifying the difficulty of the campaign was the occasional support the Estonian warriors enjoyed from the neighbouring Republic of Novgorod,
The Battle of Saule 1236 AD
which also held their own interests in the area. With this growing strain, Bishop Albert acquired help from King Valdemar of Denmark in 1218 and a year later a strong Danish fleet landed on the Estonian northern shore, quickly gaining a solid foothold at the expense of local tribes.
Thanks to the Danish help, by the early 1220s pagan Estonian tribes were brought to the Western Christian heel. It was a resounding achievement for Bishop Albert, who, in the span of barely twenty years, had augmented his small insignificant bishopric into one of the leading polities of the Eastern Baltic region. With the growing influence of Albert, so too gradually rose the power of the Sword Brethren,
which virtually became an independent entity pursuing increasingly different ambitions from its ecclesiastical founder. When Bishop Albert died in 1229, the Sword Brothers were already a dominant power in the Eastern Baltic, even managing to push the Danes out of northern Estonia. The influx of new German crusaders slowed in the 1230s, yet despite this, and the accompanying financial issues,
the Sword Brethren subjugated tribes of northern Courland, expanding their influence even further. Early in 1236 a large group of new recruits arrived from Germany, much to the joy of master Volkwin. Over the last several years the numbers of the Sword Brothers had steadily decreased, be it due to skirmishes with Baltic tribes, or simply abandonment of the crusading cause, and this new influx was greatly needed. Yet this year was particularly important for the order for another reason.
In February 1236 Pope Gregory IX had issued a papal bull calling for a crusade against the pagan tribes inhabiting lands further south of the Daugava river. For the new brothers that had recently joined the order, the pope’s call was a good opportunity to prove their worth, but the veteran brothers, together with master Volkwin, were less enthusiastic. The southern lands inhabited by Semigallian and Samogitian tribes were still largely a terra incognita for the crusaders and, what is even more important, by the mid 12th century,
the pagan societies living in what is now Lithuania presented a somewhat higher degree of cooperation and integration as compared with their northern neighbours. Of course, the Sword Brethren were far more advanced in terms of military organization and technology, but cautious master Volkwin hesitated to answer papal demands and press his luck by organising a rushed campaign into unexplored lands.
Regardless of his scepticism, master Volkwin commanded the brothers to begin preparations for a military expedition to satiate the demands of the papal legate and the recently joined members of the order. Volkwin had hoped to delay the operation until the first winter frosts, as many years of military action in the swamps of the Eastern Baltic had taught him that local marshes are best for mounted warfare when they are frozen.
But by early September the preparations were long complete and Volkwin could not linger any longer. Despite adverse weather, a roughly three thousand strong army of Sword Brethren and their allies crossed the Daugava and soon entered the hostile lands of the as yet unconquered tribes.
Upon reaching their destination, the crusaders dispersed into smaller groups and set about the methodical ravaging of the pagan settlements just as they had for decades against various other tribes. The plan devised by Master Volkwin was to perform nothing more than a token action in order to minimize the risk to the Brethren, while at the same time fulfilling the Pope’s demands and satisfying the new brethrens’ urge for plunder.
To Volkwin’s comfort, the campaign took place roughly as planned and by the second part of September his army had gathered to march back northward to their strongholds in Livonia. On the evening of the 21st day of the month what should have been an uneventful journey back met an unexpected obstacle. As the brethren were about to cross a minor river, the scouts reported a force of Samogitian warriors gathering a stone’s throw to the north. Alerted to this news, Master Volkwin pushed his subordinates to dismount,
cross the river and fall upon the pagan warriors immediately, while simultaneously attempting to make their way to the forest clearing to the north, which was far better suited for cavalry warfare. Since a good portion of the Sword Brethren were newcomers, they openly questioned Volkwin’s command, reluctant to dismount and possibly risk losing their horses in the swamps. Much time was lost due to this disagreement, and when the novice brothers finally obeyed the master’s orders, night fell, ceasing all operations until morning.
At dawn of the next day, the camp was already bustling as Volkwin pressed to reach better positions to the north as soon as possible. But as the brethren prepared to march out, the sizable host of Samogitian warriors emerged on the opposite side of the river and rushed to attack the crusaders, who hastily used what little time they had to form a battle array. The lightly armoured pagans struck the makeshift defence of Volkwin’s men, but before the battle achieved its bloody crescendo,
the yelling of a thousand throats reached the ears of the Sword Brethren as Semigallian warriors, leaping swiftly through the marshy ground, flung javelins and swiftly stormed the disorientated crusaders from the rear. A violent struggle ensued as Volkwin’s men fought for their lives.
The enemy was more numerous and at a huge tactical advantage, yet the brethren fought vigorously, despite their disastrous situation. Because of this, the tribesmen were not able to break the composure of the well trained and equipped knights in a single blow, and while the battle raged on, many men on both sides were cut down. Master Volkwin perished amidst the violent struggle,
but his death had little impact on the morale of his men, as they had virtually nowhere to run and so they were forced to fight bravely. Eventually, the crusader lines started to collapse under the relentless pressure of the Samogitian and Semigallian warriors. Many of the Brethren’s auxiliary soldiers, recruited from the conquered tribes, were able to flee the slaughter, but just a small fraction of the heavily armoured Sword Brethren and their subordinates were able to save their lives.
The battle was a resounding victory for the tribal forces and was certainly hailed as such by their generations to come. But for the Sword Brethren it was quite literally a catastrophe as the majority of their order had taken part and perished perished in that fateful battle in the middle of near boundless swamps and forests.
The Pope-induced excursion into the unexplored lands of modern Lithuania marked the abrupt end of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, the remnants of which were soon absorbed by another military order operating to the south. And while the Brothers of the Sword had been defeated, this did not mean that the catholic “mission” to preach Christianity in the Eastern Baltic tapered out. Instead,
the uneven fight between the indigenous populations and the Christian forces inspired by the Church continued to take many more lives as it lasted for the entirety of the 13th century.
“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.”— Don Quixote