The Mythology of the Battle of Saule

The raid of the Christian army against Lithuania in 1236 was dictated by the political circumstances that occurred after the Curonians’ surrender to Livonia in 1229-1230. It was then the Germans readied themselves to invite the pagans living south of the Daugava into the “sweet yoke of Christ’s faith.” It was here that the Christian German immigrant community of Riga and the interests of the pope’s curia intersected. In 1236, the focus of their direction, which was ordered by William of Modena, who was the pope’s legate in Livonia, was Lithuania. He founded the Bishopric of Courland and the Bishopric of Semigallia in 1234. The latter included a part of Lithuania: territory that was north of the Neris and Lower Nemunas, between Culm (in the west) and Polotsk (in Rus’ in the east). Lithuanians found themselves on the list of upcoming tasks for Christianization.

The varied motivations of Christians

It is shown in all historiographical sources that Pope Gregory IX invited the Christians of Germany and Gotland (the Kingdom of Sweden) in a Christian raid against the pagans that were threatening the Church of Livonia in a papal bull to his legate, Bishop William of Modena, dated February 19th, 1236. In the bull, the legate and pilgrim crusaders were obligated to expand the Christian faith, liberate their close ones from the hands of the pagans, build and care for the land’s churches, fortifications, and establish premises for bishops that did not yet have them. The legate had to control that his vassals would not be given feudal land without the permission of the pope. The pope promised to forgive the sins of those who served for no less than a year to the crusaders of Christ that went to the Holy Land. This was not the organisation of a crusade of Christ against Lithuania, but a well-founded reaction of the Holy See to the local needs of Livonia, which were described in the terminology of Christ’s crusades.

However the pilgrim crusaders understood their service to Christ’s faith in Livonia as a victorious military crusade against the Lithuanians, which is why together with legate William they pressured Volkwin, the Master of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, to taken them there at once in the summer of 1236. He avoided the difficult and dangerous crusade, tried to talk the crusaders out of it, and strove to put off preparations, but he was forced to listen to their demands.

Knowing the enemy, Volkwin carefully readied himself to take the army of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and the crusaders to the place “where we will be satisfied.”  The city dwellers of Riga strengthened their forces, along with a group of two hundred soldiers from Pskov and Navahrudak, along with Estonian, Livonian, and Latvian soldiers. It is estimated that Volkwin led approximately 3,000 soldiers.

The Brothers of the Sword swallowed by Samogitian swamps

There are three reasons concerning the route of the crusade in historiography: they either marched through Courland, through Eastern Semigallia, or through Selonia (along the shore of the Daugava until Koknese and further into Lithuania). In historical sources, the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle only goes so far to report the subject of attack and place of the battle that after the difficult crusade to Lithuania, the destruction and plundering of the land, and army that separated in groups, all returned to Soule. Scholars identify this, with sound basis, as the area of Šiauliai. Lithuanian historiography holds to the opinion that the subject of the army’s crusade was Samogitia (to the southwest of the land of Šiauliai). It is thought that the Order only attacked the land of Šiauliai (or the northern land of Lithuania), as they were not able get over the left shore of the River Šventoji.

The crusader army, returning along the “swamps and heathlands” toward Šiauliai, noticed Lithuanian soldiers near one small river on September 21st, 1236. The Christian army stopped in the swamp. The experienced soldier Volkwin advised the pilgrim crusaders to strike first, and not wait, until the Lithuanians would gather their forces (standing near the river, they did not attack, but “came closer and closer”, gathering their forces and surrounded them). According to the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, the men who had desired a fight in Riga now were not hurrying to fight, because they did not want to kill their horses in the boggy swamp and fight on foot. On the morning of September 22, the Christians decided to retreat, but it was too late – the pagans had cut off their way back. As for battle tactics, the crusaders chose to use shock cavalry in the swamp (of course, when Master Volkwin with the Brothers of the Sword fought on horseback while the Lithuanians beat their horses).

The boggy area of the battle took away the military advantage from the heavily armed knights.

The formation disintegrated, the soldiers scattered, and the Lithuanians “struck them down like they were old women.”

Among the special weapons of the Lithuanians that were mentioned are the wooden boumen, which were cudgels or stumps of trees used to break the knight’s formation.

The story of the Battle of Saule in the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle is imbued with derision for the pilgrim crusaders and respect for the valiant master and Brothers of the Sword. While fighting, some of the Christian soldiers broke through the ranks of the Lithuanian army, however as they were returning to Riga, they were persecuted and killed by the Semigallians. The losses for Livonia were enormous. The master, 48 Brothers of the Sword, and 2,000 crusaders and 180 Pskovian soldiers were killed (along with an unknown number of soldiers from a Navahrudak battalion). Saving the Order of the Brothers of the Sword from collapse (together with the Church of Livonia), the pope incorporated the remnants of the Brothers of the Sword into the Teutonic Order in Prussia in 1237. In this way, the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem appeared in Livonia.

Vague knowledge about the battle’s location and its leader

In the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, the main source about the history of the Battle of Sale, nothing is mentioned about the persons who fought in the ranks of Lithuanians. However, in historiography there is an opinion said in the second half of the 19th century that prevailed which said that the Samogitan Duke Vykintas lead the Lithuanian (or to be more precise, Samogitian) army. The main argument is found in the Halych–Volhynian Chronicle. It is the answer of Livonian Master Andreas to Duke Daniel of the Kingdom of Halych-Volhynia concerning the latter’s request to support a union against Mindaugas, which in addition to others must have also been joined by Vykintas (1249). Andreas agreed to participate in a coalition only because of Daniel, because another of the participants, Vykintas, supposedly had killed many Brothers of the Order. It is thought that they talked about the consequences of the Battle of Saule. Though it is not entirely reasonable to call Vykintas the leader of the winners of the Battle of Saule, he most likely played a significant part in it.

The location of the Battle of Saule (Šiauliai) is not described in detail in historical sources, which is why a number of disputes have arise among researchers.

 In sources it is said that the battles took place near the land of Šiauliai, circa terram Sauleorum, or returning to (through) Šiauliai (kein Soule sie karten wider). There are hypotheses to the location. Historian Edvardas Gudavičius has given evidence for another location of the battle in the southwest from Šiauliai, which would be between Laukuva, Tverai, and Šiauliai. In Lithuania, the most established version is that of Friedrich Beninghofen (that the battle took place in the fields of the village of Jauniūnai that is north of Šiauliai) shows the organisational abilities of people immortalizing this myth, and not historical realia.

Literature: Eiliuotoji Livonijos kronika, Mindaugo knyga: istorijos šaltiniai apie Lietuvos karalių, par. D. Antanavičius ir kt., V., 2005.

Artūras Dubonis