True Lithuania

Grand Duchy of Lithuania (until 1569)

For millennia before ~1000 AD, the Baltic tribes lived in a separate world, barely noticed by foreigners, save for sporadic trade. That Baltic area was, however, slowly shrinking, as various migrations have eroded its eastern outreaches. The lands of the Baltic tribe that would become the most famous - the Lithuanians - lied in the region untouched by this cultural change.

Prehistoric territory of the Balts, superimposed on the current state borders. Over the centuries, southern and eastern Baltic territories became Slavic. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

By 1009, Lithuanians became powerful enough for their name to be known to the outsiders, who mentioned the word "Lithuania" for the first time in the annals of Quedlinburg where a story describes how Saint Bruno was killed by the pagans “on the border of Lithuania and Russ”.

Soon afterward, the Balts became infamous in Western Europe as one of the continent's final pagans. The Christian kings dreamed to convert this area, launching the “Baltic Crusades”. For this job, the Teutonic Order of knights was relocated from the failed anti-muslim campaigns in the Holy Land to Marienburg near the Baltic Sea, ravaging the local Balts.

Under pressure, many of the remaining Balts consolidated into a larger country of Lithuania with its ruler Mindaugas adopting Catholicism and getting crowned in the year 1253. The change in religious policy was short-lived, however, and the next monarch Treniota went back to the defense of paganism and the seemingly eternal war against the Teutonic Order that transformed Western Lithuania into depopulated wastelands.

Lithuanian and Teutonic knights fight during a tournament in Klaipėda Sea Festival. Many clubs specialize in re-enacting the life and warfare of 13th to 16th centuries, seen by many as the most glorious era in Lithuanian history. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While ruled by pagan Lithuanians, the Grand Duchy successfully expanded eastwards and annexed many Orthodox lands in modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, therefore becoming the last pagan great power in Europe (and, in fact, the final pagan state).

In 1385 the monarch Jogaila converted his country to Catholicism and adopted the Polish crown in addition to the Lithuanian one by signing the Union of Krėva. Grand Duchy of Lithuania still remained independent and reached its greatest extent under the rule of Vytautas the Great when it was the largest country in Europe stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. By this time Orthodox Slavs outnumbered Catholic Lithuanians, but the latter remained in power.

It was the spectacular victory by Vytautas and Jogaila at Žalgiris (Grunewald) in 1410 against the Teutonic knights that finally defeated the Order as it had previously refused to drop territorial claims against Lithuania even after its conversion. Since that moment it was the rapidly expanding Russia (Muscovy) that posed the greatest threat to Lithuania capturing various cities of the Grand Duchy in a series of wars. Russian monarchs claimed that all of Lithuania's Slavic lands should belong to Russia.

Establishment and expansion of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, superimposed on modern European state boundaries. The areas enclosed by black dotted lines indicates regions both acquired and lost before 1430. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

See also:
Top 10 Medieval sites in Lithuania
Grand Duchy of Lithuania ethnic relations (1253-1569)

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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