Looking For Their Place Under the Sun: Lithuanian Refugees in the West and East

What were the first immigrants running away from?

In 1268 Lithuanian noble Šiukšta (nobilis Suxe) was baptized with the name of Nicholas in Riga. He took an oath of vassal dependence to the local archbishop, and gave him his patrimonial holdings in Nalšia and received them back from the archbishop as a feudal fief. At the time Lithuania was dealing with internal conflicts after the killing of King Mindaugas. One can assume that Šiukšta had the intention of looking for refuge in the neighbouring and, it seems, familiar land of Livonia during these times of political strife. In Christian lands, the loss of Mindaugas was interpreted as the final descent of the Lithuanians into paganism (as was said at the time, “dogs go back to their vomit”). As a result, the holy crusades to Lithuania were revived. It was precisely at the time that Šiukšta went to Riga that influential Western feudal, King Ottokar II of Bohemia, received a papal bull that called for the organization of a crusade. Lithuania’s opening up to the Christian faith seemed to be an issue in the not-so-distant future.  Šiukšta hoped, with good reason, to return to his homeland with the support of the Christians of Livonia. He was the first known “political refugee” if we don’t count Mindaugas’ nephews Tautvilas and Gedvydas, who were wanted by Mindaugas’ political supporters (which happened after Mindaugas expelled them from their patrimonial holdings). Most likely the practice of looking for new guardians was a normal phenomenon in an age of hired mercenaries. Soldiers and their leaders were agile and became easily involved in a new political environment. With the strengthening of the state’s institutions, the leaders of surrounding lands were interested in these dukes, while leaving them could cause a crisis in the country.

From the better documented times of the Gediminids in the 14th century, we know that there were many cases of Lithuanian dukes and nobles immigrating. Some would leave Lithuania for a brief period and then return, while other left for all time. Dukes from the ruler’s family understood their exile to be temporary and hoped that with the help of supporters that they would receive or get back the throne. Jaunutis, who was overthrown in 1345, escaped to the Grand Duke of Moscow, who was married his sister Aigusta Anastasia (news of her death had not yet reached Jaunutis). Having failed to secure greater support in Moscow, Jaunutis returned a few years later and finished his days as a regional duke of Lithuania who was loyal to his brothers.

A typical situation was that a large part of dukes that lost in the fight for power and withdrew would later return, receive a pardon from the ruler and receive ducal property.

This is what happened to another of Gediminas’ sons Narimantas, who sought refuge from the Tatars in 1345, but who was one of the leaders of the Lithuanian army in the Battle of Strėva against the Teutonic Order in 1348.

The exotic Lithuanians spike the curiosity of Westerners

However, the fate of Kęstutis’ son Butautas ended up differently. The second son of Kęstutis, who ruled Drohiczyn in Podlachia, on the border with the Teutonic Order, created friendly ties with the brothers of the Order early. While still young, in 1365 he hatched a coup in Vilnius against Algirdas and Kęstutis, who had left on a military campaign to Volhynia. After the coup failed, he withdrew to the territory of the Order together with a retinue of bojars. In Königsberg, he was baptized Henry, and his godfather most likely was Henry of Schöningen, the commander of the border castle of Insterburg, who according to the custom of the time gave his name to the newly baptized person. In the same year, Butautas reached the surroundings of Vilnius with the Order’s army. Knights from England participated in the battle. Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick later boasted of taking the Lithuanian duke prisoner and baptizing him.

Thus, baptizing a Lithuanian noble was prestigious, and it’s thought that this Lithuania was a noble Thomas Survila, who had fled together with Butautas.

Despite initial success, later Butautas could not markedly help the Order (the young man had yet to gain greater political support there), which is why he soon withdrew from Prussia and spent the remaining years of his life in Prague at the manor estate of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV. Among the emperor’s manor estate courtiers, he was given the title of “Duke of Lithuania.” This reflected the fashion of Europe’s noble class to what one could call “collecting” nobles from far-away lands. The set of vestments given by Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas to the Augustinian house of St. Thomas in Prague in the 14th century, which was done in commemoration of his brother’s soul, bears witness to the fact that he preserved his distant ties with his family. At the end of the 14th century, German poet Schondoch composed a short work about Butautas called “How one King of the Pagans, With the Name Lithuanian, Miraculously Converted and was Baptized in Prussia.” In this work he provided a unique description of the life of the Lithuanian duke, just that only some of the traits are really true. The most unexpected aspect of this story is the departure of Butautas’ son. Sixteen years after his father had left, Butautas’ son Vaidutis, who was still small when his father left him, set out through the Order’s territory to Prague in 1381. It was there that Vaidutis studied at university, was ordained as a priest, and later moved to Poland, which was ruled by his uncle, Władysław II Jagiełło. Jonas was appointed the second rector of the re-founded Krakow University.

In the Refuge of the Order

If persons of ducal origins lived on manor estates or duchies designed for them (the King of Hungary gave such things to the Karijotas family, and the Muscovite rulers did the same), then land holdings were given to other nobles.

The Order recognized the noble status of Lithuanians that arrived and gave them land holdings that suited their rank.

For example, one noble ruler of Samogitia called Manstas (who was for a time the representative of the grand duke in the land) received a large parcel of land in Warmia in 1321, a total of 25 ploughshares of land. The branch of the family he started established itself in Prussia and later became famous under the Germanized name of Manstein. Thomas Survila, who had withdrew to the Order’s State, received a large parcel of land together with Butautas in 1370. Lesser noble refugees in Prussia had to make do with smaller holdings of 1-3 ploughshares. The Survila family continued to preserve their ties with Lithuania for a few generations (serving the magistrates as translators and envoys, with one even becoming pregnant by Vytautas after the Battle of Grunwald, and the Grand Master of the Order accusing him of adultery. 

The influx of political refugees reached the Order’s state in the turbulent last decades of the 14th century: it was visited by Jogaila’s brothers Andrius (who was Orthodox) and Švitrigaila, while the unrivalled refugee of refugees was Vytautas, who found shelter in Prussia twice, and lived there for almost 5 years. Like his older brother Butautas, Vytautas led the Order’s army and Western knights to Vilnius. Vytautas gathered together a large group of supporters and won the struggle for power in Lithuania, where he began to carry out reforms (which were partially influenced by the example of the power structure in the Order’s territory).

Literature.: S. C. Rowell, Unexpected Contacts: Lithuanians at Western Courts, c. 1316-c. 1400, in: English Historical Review, vol. 111, 1996, p. 557–577.

Rimvydas Petrauskas