The Crusade in Semigallia and Battle of Saule in 1236

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Battle of Saule.

Divide et impera- Divide and Rule or Divide or Conquer was the main strategy used by Crusaders against early Latvian tribes and it worked perfectly all the way. But following this strategy the last conquered force was usually the strongest and resisted till the last man standing. In this case it was the Semigallians who was the hardest nut for the Crusaders. Semigallians together with Lithuanians caused the most causalities for the Crusaders and even brought them at the brink of destruction. But it was not enough to defeat them completely because Semigallians cared little to help other tribes and fought only for themselves. That’s why divide et impera strategy works when resistance lacks unity. But despite of that the Semigallian resistance and victory at Saule needs detailed look, for every form of resistance needs to be judged.

German merchants visited Semigallian trade ports before the start of the Crusade. The port named Semigallia located near the river island Dole in a river of Daugava was attacked by the Russians of Polotsk and Livonians. When the Crusaders came the Livonians took control of this port. At 1185 and 1203 Semigallians attacked Crusader strong point’s trying to drive them out of river Daugava waterway. But the Crusaders were too strong and Semigallians were forced to make peace. This was because of Lithuanian threat who made large raids against Semigallians, Livonians, Latgalians, Estonians and even the people of Saami. This caused the Semigallian ruler of Tervete Viestards to offer an alliance to the Germans against the Lithuanians. To ensure the power of alliance the Crusaders asked to send hostages from every Semigallian palace to them. And Viestards did so, showing he had a strength to control large parts of Semigallia. The alliance did not command the Semigallians to convert to Christianity. Together they defeated the Lithuanians, this vital for both sides for the Lithuanian forces could destroy them both.

In 1206 and 1208 the Semigallian- Crusader alliance was still functioning, for they both attacked the Livonian castle of Turaida and attacked Lithuanians. But in 1208 when Crusaders made incursions into Lithuanian land the Semigallians left Crusaders alone against the Lithuanians. This marked the end of the alliance. In 1210 when Curonians tried to take Riga from the sea the Semigallians were asked to help them. But they just awaited the end of battle and when Curonians failed they retreated without a fight. We could only speculate what could happen if a joint Curonian-Semigallian strike on Riga from land and sea could occur.

But in 1219 Semigallians were again atacked by Lithuanians. Again they asked for Crusader help, but this time they only offered help when castle of Mežotne was forced to baptize. But Viestards of Tervete was against this and broke formal alliance with the Crusaders and siege the Crusader occupied Mežotne. In the bitter battle he lost the son of his sister and retreated, but then he crushed the reinforcements from Riga. The small garrison of Mežotne was forced to flee. Now Semigallians was fully against Crusaders and even made alliances with Lithuanians. This decision was probably based on forced baptizing of Mežotne castle.  Semigallians finally witnessed the German Crusaders as the true enemy rather than Lithuanians. Lithuanians were not primarily interested in taking Semigallian land or freedom but Crusaders certainly had this desire.

In 1220 the Crusaders took a revenge action against the “heathen peoples” of Mežotne. A large force commanded by Bishop Albert himself assembled with siege weapons attacked the Mežotne. The powerful siege weapons destroyed the wooden walls and defenders were forced to ask peace. Crusaders wanted full capitulation which was overruled by the defenders and the battle continued. At this time the forces by Viestards and Lithuanians were near the battle site, but again for some reason they did not take active part in the battle. Mežotne was burned to the ground and this showed that Semigallians were divided in their own ranks. Mežotne was an eastern Semigallian castle, Viestards was western Semmigalian ruler. Because the Mežotne declined his rule he left it in dismay. His army could easily attack Crusaders from the back ending the siege and gain important victory. But his own ambitions were too strong to help his fellow tribesman.

In 1236 the major event took place. The new party of the Crusaders came from Holstein, Germany. The bulla by Pope issued the war against Lithuanian pagans. In September 1236 the Crusaders attacked some Samogitian settlements. On their return they faced armed forces of Samogitian at the river crossing. Crusaders refused to fight because they may lose their horses in the swampland. Others refused to fight on foot and knights were forced to camp for the night. Next day a large force by Lithuanians and Samogitians lead by Duke Vykintas and Mindaugas the – future king of Lithuania assembled near the camp. They attacked the Crusaders in their camp and killed them and forced them all to flee. But the fleeing Knights were allegedly killed by Semigallians. So the Brothers of Sword lost 48 men the core of the Order and this was a disaster.

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The battle sheds many mysteries and myths. For instance we don’t know  the exact site of the battle. There are two possible variants- the village Vecsaule in Latvia near Bauska could be the site. The other site in Lithuania is the city of Šiauliai. Saule means sun in both Latvian and Lithuanian languages. So it could occur in both places associated with name Saule.

The next thing about the Battle of Saule is the myth of Baltic unity in the events of the battle. Nationalists tend to believe that Crusader defeat was a achieved both by Lithuanians and Latvians. The Semigallians killed the departing Crusaders on their way to Riga so they helped the crush of Order in some way, but it’s rather skeptical that they acted together with Lithuanians. They just witnessed the Crusader defeat and took the chance to kill some running Crusaders. It was really a Lithuanian achievement, the Semmigallian role, if they even had a role was the role of running rat trapper. But despite of that the September 22, the date of the battle,  is officially considered as Baltic Unity Day. It’s not a holiday, but it serves as the date for nationalists and Medieval fans to celebrate the battle. Usually the simulations of battle occur and folk bands gather around. The first pagan metal album of band Skyforger is named after the Battle of Saule. The album is a classic example of the history of Latvian heavy metal. Even more classic is the painting by Voldemar Vimba showing both Baltic nations destroying the enemy.

The Battle of Saule in 1236 was an epic event which halted the Crusader advance for decades. Semigallians were at peace for some years but Lithunians showed that they were too strong to be easily taken. The Order of Brotherhood of Sword ceased to exist because of the enormous casualties. To look at this event from a skeptical point of view the victory took place because of Crusader adventurism and incompetence. They left themselves exposed to Lithuanians when they decided to camp down instead of immediate action. But the importance of the battle is not questionable it was the main failure of Crusader invasion. It was enough to halt the advance on Lithuania, but not enough to stop advancing against Curonians and Semigallians. This will be discussed in future posts.

Selected Sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.

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One response to “The Crusade in Semigallia and Battle of Saule in 1236

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Saule 1236 | Skyforger / History

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