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Painting depicting the Battle of Grunwald

The Battle of Grunwald: The biggest unknown medieval battle

Image: The Battle of Grunwald (1878) by Jan Matejko | Public Domain

It was a titanic confrontation between vast medieval armies which left thousands dead and became a source of patriotic pride across the ages. But we’re not talking about the Battle of Hastings. Or Agincourt. Or Bannockburn. This is the story of the gigantic Battle of Grunwald, a confrontation that heralded the decline of a great military order.

On one side: Teutonic Knights

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the Battle of Grunwald, we have to consider the Crusades. But not those Crusades.

When most people think of the term, they think of Christians pitted against Muslims, and totemic figures like Saladin and Richard the Lionheart leading their armies in the Holy Land. But many historians also use the term to refer to certain military campaigns that took place far closer to home. Sanctioned by the Catholic Church, these crusades pitted Europeans against Europeans in bitter ideological confrontations that made a huge impact on the continent.

Among them were the Northern Crusades, where Catholic military orders set out to forcibly convert the pagan peoples of the Baltic regions. One group of crusaders which undertook these missions was the largely German Order of the Teutonic Knights. They had much in common with the Templars, in that they were founded in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, lived by a strict religious rule, and protected pilgrims to the Holy Land.

But during the 13th century, the focus of their activities switched to eastern Europe, where the Teutonic Knights subjugated pagan Prussians and created their own crusader state on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

On the other side: Lithuania and Poland

Right next door to the Teutonic state was the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which – being a pagan realm – was a natural target for the Teutonic Order. For years, the Knights carried out raids on Lithuanian lands, essentially doing their job as Crusaders. But things changed in 1386 when Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania married Jadwiga, the monarch of the neighbouring kingdom of Poland.

Part of the deal was that he and his realm would convert to Christianity. On paper, this should have neutralised the threat from the Teutonic Order, because why would the Knights mount a crusade against a Christian nation? However, the Order’s leaders regarded the Grand Duke’s conversion as little more than a tactical move, and not a sincerely-felt acceptance of the faith. What’s more, territorial disputes meant that the Teutonic state and the allied Lithuanian and Polish realms were destined to remain rivals, even if they happened to share the same religion. It was only a matter of time before an almighty battle would take place.

A gift of swords

After a series of smaller sieges, sackings and violent confrontations, the big face-off finally took place on 15th July 1410, near the village of Grunwald, Poland. While it’s impossible to say for certain how many combatants there were, it’s generally accepted that there were up to 27,000 on the Teutonic side and 39,000 on the Polish-Lithuanian side. It was, in other words, a gigantic assembly of soldiers, and although the Order was outnumbered, they felt ready for victory. After all, they were the feared and fearsome Teutonic Knights, and they were confident in the power of their heavy cavalry.

But the Polish-Lithuanian side stood firm on their side of the battlefield, refusing to come at the Teutonic lines. An agonising wait ensued, with the Teutonic troops sweating in their heavy armour. It got so frustrating for the crusaders that the Teutonic grand master Ulrich von Jungingen dispatched envoys bearing a taunting gift to the leaders of the Polish and Lithuanian armies. This gift consisted of two swords and a sardonic message which invited them to ‘delay less’ and ‘fight more’.

The Battle of Grunwald

When the fighting finally commenced, the Teutonic Knights seemingly had the upper hand, with their charging cavalry forcing the Lithuanian contingent to retreat from the scene. Historians have debated whether the Lithuanians were sincerely fleeing for their lives, or had in fact performed a feigned retreat, intended to lure the Knights into a false sense of security and make them vulnerable to a sudden counterattack.

Whether or not it was part of the Lithuanians’ plan, they did indeed come surging back into the battle, by which time the Knights were immersed in fighting Polish troops. The Knights found themselves encircled by a terrifying mass of Lithuanian and Polish warriors, and Ulrich von Jungingen, grand master of the Teutonic Knights, was slain by a lance thrust into his neck.

Finding themselves leaderless and overwhelmed, the Teutonic Knights retreated to their camp, where many were cut down by the pursuing Poles and Lithuanians. While the exact number of casualties is unknown, many thousands on both sides were certainly killed during the 10-hour battle.

The aftermath

Although the Polish-Lithuanian alliance didn’t succeed in making extensive territorial gains after the battle, this was nevertheless a decisive victory. It permanently damaged the Teutonic Order’s reputation, led to them paying financially draining war reparations, and contributed to their decline in the decades that followed.

The battle’s resonance has been felt in Europe ever since. It’s a source of national pride in Poland and Lithuania, as well as Belarus and Ukraine (since their people also fought on the allied side). The two swords, pompously sent over by the doomed grand master of the Teutonic Knights, are depicted on the coat of arms of the commune of Grunwald – an enduring reminder of the fateful day which humbled one of the most formidable military orders of the medieval age.