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Medieval Lithuania

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The Battle of Durbe
History, Causes, and Outcomes

Inga Baranauskienė

       The Battle of Durbe of July 13, 1260, was one of the greatest and the most significant victories against the Teutonic Order in the entire history of the Baltic Crusade. This study reviews its context, causes, and outcomes.
       By the mid 13th century the Teutonic Order seemed to have victory at hand. Since 1230, when Conrad of Mazovia granted it the Land of Kulm, the Order was successfully conquering Prussia. Moreover annexation of the Sword-Brothers Order in 1237 brought the Teutonic Knights vast domains in Livonia, and they expanded them even more. Grand Duke of Lithuania Mindaugas appeared to be unable to stop them.
       In late 1248 a domestic war broke out in Lithuania bringing to the Teutonic Knights first Mindaugas’ rival nephew Tautvilas and then Mindaugas himself. In return for its assistance and the royal crown, Mindaugas granted the Order the larger half of Samogitia, Northern Sudovia and Nadruvia. Selonia followed shortly afterwards. The Teutonic Knights could congratulate themselves. Lithuania – their most dangerous foe – was broken, converted to Christianity, and neutralized. Resistance of other Baltic tribes was undermined as well: in 1249–1253 the Order suppressed the First Prussian Uprising, Semigalia surrendered in 1250, whereas the conquest of Southern Curonia was finished in autumn 1252 – spring 1253 (Northern Curonia was occupied since 1244). Sambia continued to fight, but in early 1255 with the help of King Ottokar II of Bohemia it was crashed in a bloody massacre. The spirit of the Balts looked broken: the crew of the Wehlau Castle built by Nadruvians and Sudavians in mid 1255 to shield their lands from the advancing Teutonic Knights surrendered without a fight just a few moths later. And yet, in this hopeless moment Samogitians arose and changed the course of history.
       Indeed, it was an unexpected turn. Samogitians had to be demoralized by the domestic war: first they supported Tautvilas (nephew of their duke Vykintas through the maternal lime), then went on the side of Mindaugas by late 1252, and nevertheless were exchanged for the crown in July 1253. It is marvelous that Samogitians managed to avoid frustration and, instead of surrendering to the Teutonic Knights, started a sudden counteroffensive. Their new leader Alminas (Aleman) raised an ambitious goal to re-establish control over Curonia determined to show Mindaugas that fighting against the Order could bring more benefits, that submission. In the face of the defeat of Sambia it was brave, if not to say more.
       Nevertheless, the further course of events proved that Fortune favors the brave. In the first half of 1256 Alminas made his first raid on Curonia and was successful. The Teutonic Order raided Samogitia in response, but with little effect. In early 1257 Samogitians attacked again and crashed the army of the Livonian landmaster at the Battle of Klaipėda (Memel). 12 knights were killed; the landmaster himself was badly wounded and hardly managed to break through to the Klaipėda Castle.
After the battle, in order to prevent the responsive attack, Samogitians offered truce. The Teutonic Knights agreed hoping that during the truce they would manage to persuade Samogitian nobility to The collaborate with them. truce was made for two years, but the hopes of the Order did not come true.
       Although Mindaugas repeatedly donated Samogitia and other lands to the Teutonic Order in mid 1257 and by the end of the truce on August 7, 1259, Samogitians stood firm. In early autumn, 1259, Alminas again invaded Curonia with 3 thousand men and crashed the Teutonic army led by the Komtur of Klaipėda at the Battle of Skuodas killing 33 knights.
       Shortly afterwards he invaded Curonia once more. This time the Livonian landmaster had an early warning, and was able to concentrate all his forces by the Vartaja Castle. But Samogitians showed up on the opposite bank of the Vartaja River Valley, and, as night was coming, the Livonian landmaster did not dare to attack them at once. By morning Samogitians were gone: being outnumbered, they decided to retreat and managed to reach home without losses.
       Attempts to present this retreat as a victory of the Order could not persuade anyone. Semigallians which witnessed disgrace of the Livonian landmaster being summoned into his army came home and expelled Teutonic crews out of their castles. Thus Alminas’ policy began to bring results: Samogitia got a mighty ally shielding it from the North.
       The Order decided to reconsider its tactics: short-term raids were to transform into fortification-building operations. As soon as winter came, the Livonian landmaster invaded Semigallia, launched a divert attack on Tervete, and then marched to the Land of Dobe, where he built a castle under the same name. Samogitians attempted to siege it immediately after Livonian main forces returned to Riga, but it seems, that the Teutonic Knights used that to invade Samogitia itself and to build the Castle of Georgenburg in the Land of Karšuva (localized at the Vilkų Laukas Hillfort I).
       Georgenburg erected in the very end of 1259 had to paralyze Samogitian activities, for their siege skills were still vague. Nevertheless Samogitians found the solution: they cut Georgenburg from supplies by building their own castle nearby (localized at the Vilkų Laukas Hillfort II).
Situation of the Georgenburg crew became increasingly complicated, so in summer, 1260, the Livonian landmaster began to organize a rescue raid also hoping to crash Samogitia for good and all. He summoned armies of Livonia and Prussia, 30 newly recruited knights from Germany, Danish forces from Tallinn (Revel) and an unknown number of pilgrims including Swedish prince Karl Ulfsson.
       All these forces counting 8 thousand men or more met in Klaipėda (Memel) planning to march to Georgenburg and then further to Samogitia. But then a message came that 4 thousand Samogitians had just invaded Curonia. Alminas took a risk of diversion and was right –the Livonian landmaster rushed after him enabling the enemy to choose the battlefield.
       Alminas took the position by the same Durbe-Vartaja Valley, which had shielded him so well half a year before – he just moved several kilometers northwards to have his right wing covered by the Durbe Lake. The site was so inconvenient for the Order, that some Prussians collaborationists advised the Teutonic Knights to rely on defensive tactics leaving horses behind and fighting on foot. But the Livonian landmaster decided to charge relying on the overwhelming majority of his host.
       Another fatal mistake was a quarrel with Curonians, who asked, that their captured women and children were returned to them in case of victory. Chronicler Peter of Dusburg says that Teutonic commanders were ready to give the promise and the objection came from the side of some other Livonian and Prussian people, but it sounds suspicious for both in Livonia and Prussia the Order was the major force. It looks more likely, that the Teutonic commanders themselves attempted to push on Curonians threatening that their captives might not be returned, for Curonians had fled from the Battle of Skuodas. Of cause, the effect was opposite. When the battle with Samogitians began, Curonians left the Teutonic army, and some of them even turned against their former masters. The Estonians followed immediately and most of other Prussian and Livonian people fled as well. The Teutonic Knights and pilgrims were left to fight alone and Samogitians crashed them. July 13, 1260, claimed lives of the Livonian landmaster, Prussian marshal and 150 knights. Throughout the entire history of the Baltic Crusade only the famous Battle of Tannenberg of July 15, 1410, managed to exceed the score of Durbe claiming 200 knights.

       The splendid Samogitian victory shook the entire Baltic Region. Georgenburg and Dobe were deserted. In autumn, 1260, the Prussians started their second Great Uprising which lasted 14 years. Curonians invited Samogitians to their most important castles. The Order managed to destroy Dzintare, but in February, 1261, Samogitians won the Battle at Lielvarde killing 10 knights and instigating the Uprising of Saaremaa.
Mindaugas hesitated till autumn, but Lithuanian nobility and especially his nephew Treniota finally forced him to break alliance with the Order, refuse Christianity, and take Samogitia under his protection. Lithuania was re-united, just as Alminas wanted, and in 1261 year won the war with the Teutonic Order preserving Samogitia, Curonian Lands of Ceklis and Mėguva, Southern Semigallia and a large part of Sudovia. These territories were sustained all historical cataclysms and now make its integral part.
       Another important outcome of the Battle of Durbe and Samogitian resistance in general was that they prevented establishment of a unified Order State on the southern coast of the Baltic and thus saved territories of modern Latvia and Estonia from germanization. All this makes the Battle of Durbe one of the turning points in the history of the entire Baltic region and a day to be remembered not only by Samogitians or Lithuanians, but also by Latvians and even Estonians.


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