The Order of the Teutonic Knights was originally established in the 12th century. It was based in the important city of Acre which was of strategic importance during the Crusades in the Holy Lands. After the Christian armies had been ousted from the Middle East, the Teutonic Knights turned to Poland, Lithuania and Prussia in a bid to Christianise these as-yet unchristian regions in northern Europe.
By the end of 13th century, the Teutonic knights had a monastic state of their own, a very sound financial base, a sizeable army of mercenaries, a naval fleet and were virtually the administrators of an independent state nominally under Papal supervision.
Teutonic Knights Origins
The Order of the Teutonic Knights came into being in the last 12th century. It was originally a German-led institution meant to establish a hospital for Christians in the Holy Land. By the end of the century, the Order had been more organised along the lines of the Knights Templar. It had a military basis now and a Grand Master who led its operations.
By the beginning of the 13th century, the Order had evolved as a thoroughly military order and was meant to take part in the Christian Crusades against the Muslims in the Middle East. However, the Order didn’t prove a very decisive battlefield force. It lost its headquarters in Acre when the city fell to Muslim forces in 1271.
Crusade and Invasion of Prussia
Prussia was a pagan region at the beginning of the 13th century. Upon the encouragement of the Polish rulers, the Teutonic Knights led a Crusade under Papal authority in the region. The Crusade began around 1230 and it took the Order nearly fifty years to completely subdue the pagan Prussians.
This was mostly accomplished by killing most of the natives or forcing them to exile. The Order also attempted to expand into Kievan Rus but was thwarted at the landmark Battle of the Ice by Alexander Nevsky in 1242.
Teutonic Knights at the Height of Power
During the 14th century, the Teutonic Knights continued to expand their influence all over the Baltic countries and further inland. They were able to subdue Lithuania after a long and fierce struggle, and were granted lands in Sweden and other areas in return for their military service.
By the beginning of the 15th century, the Order effectively had a huge state in northern Europe. This state spanned over Prussia, Livonia, Estonia and a range of other territories. At this time, the Order had a sizable fleet of its own and a formidable force of knights.
Decline of Teutonic Knights
The decline of the Order began after Lithuania and other territories Christianised under the Order were thoroughly assimilated into Christendom. In 1410, the Order lost a major battle to a joint Polish-Lithuanian army. The defeat was first of a series that the Order suffered throughout the 15th century.
By the 16th century, the Order had been ousted from Prussia. By the 19th century, the Order had two little territories under its direct control. It was finally dissolved on the orders of Napoleon in 1809, bringing the military history of the Order to an end. However, it was later revived and today functions as a charity group.