True Lithuania

Early Leaders of Lithuania

The leaders of 13th-15th century Lithuania are still venerated as the original founders of the state. They were either pagan or converted to Christianity in their adulthood, therefore their names are original Lithuanian rather than localized Christian names.

First among them was Mindaugas, the only king of Lithuania recognized by the Pope whose 1253 conversion to Christianity failed to Christianize the whole country (26 urban streets). Subsequent pagan leaders, such as Vytenis (12 urban streets), also styled themselves as “Kings” but now are commonly named “Grand Dukes” as to be a king in the contemporary Europe you had to be a Christian. Famous among these leaders was Gediminas (1275-1341; 35 urban streets), the alleged founder of Vilnius. Then there was Algirdas (1296-1377; 22 urban streets) who swiftly expanded Lithuania eastwards and southwards, tripling it in size, and Kęstutis, legendarily marrying a vaidilutė (a virgin pagan priestess) Birutė (he has 40 urban streets named after him and she has 49).

Gediminas looks over Katedros (Cathedral) square in Vilnius, the city he had founded, as the legend goes, after dreaming an iron wolf. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Finally, there were two cousins Jogaila (1348-1434; 4 urban streets) and Vytautas (1350-1430; 58 urban streets). Jogaila, a convert to Catholicism, was crowned a king of Poland (where he is called Jagiello), starting the Jagiellonian dynasty that vied for European domination against the Habsburgs. Vytautas ruled Lithuanian Grand Duchy, expanding it from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Later historians saw the era of Vytautas as the time of ultimate Lithuanian glory and styled him “The Great” (“Magnus” in Latin or “Didysis” in Lithuanian).

Jogaila and Vytautas together managed to finally extinguish the threat of Teutonic Knights that plagued Lithuania for centuries in a decisive victory at the battle of Žalgiris (Grunewald).

The names of subsequent Jagiellonian monarchs are less commonly visible in Lithuania. There are multiple reasons for this. Firstly, the center of power shifted from Lithuania to Poland in what eventually (in 1569) became a federation. Secondly, the kings lost political importance to the nobility, and, finally, the federation itself was relegated to a minor power.

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