In 1126, the Duke of Masovia, Konrad I, sent a plea to the Teutonic Knights. He requested assistance in defending the northern border of his duchy from the pagan Baltic Old Prussians. He also allowed the Knights to use Chełmno Land (Culmerland) as a base for the campaign.
Shortly after receiving the request, Hermann von Salza accepted. He expressed his belief that Prussia would serve as an excellent training ground for the Knights. They would need this for fighting crusades against Muslims in the Outremer (the Holy Land).
After being defeated in his attempt to create a Teutonic state in present-day Hungary, von Salza wanted to wait for Imperial orders before embarking on a new European Crusade. This was given to him in the Golden Bull of Rimini, issued by Frederick II in 1226.
“Brother Konrad had offered and promised to furnish brother Hermann, Honorable Master of the Holy Hospital of St. Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem [Teutonic Order]...with the Chełmno Land between his march and the Prussians and equip them well, so they may take Preussenland [Terra Prussiae] in possession... we recognize the fact, that this land is included in the realm of the empire, we trust the judgement of the Master... we recognize all land in Prussia as an ancient right of the empire ...”
–Golden Bull of Rimini, Frederick II, 1226
This official statement imbued von Salza with the power and casus beli to begin the Prussian Crusade. He now had the imperial privilege for the conquest—and subsequent possession—of Prussia.
With the assimilation of the Order of Dobrzyń, von Salza (in one of his last acts as Grand Master) began the Crusade.
Although Hermann von Salza died in 1239, the crusade continued. Under the fifth Grand Master, Conrad of Thruingia, Knights were sent into the wild, untamed Prussian lands.
(the pagan Old Prussian tribes circa 1200. Area in red is approximation of Teutonic Knights' camp)
The next fifty years would be a half-century of blood, terror, and death. The Teutonic Knights waged a horrific war of Christianization. All Old Prussians who resisted baptism were slaughtered or exiled.
Word of this brutal treatment spread to the other tribes. As Teutonic Knights moved into the land of the Yotvingians, they were plagued by vicious guerilla attacks. According to official Teutonic chroniclers, captured Teutonic Knights faced a nightmarish fate.
The actual fate varied from tribe to tribe, but all were very similar. Captured Teutonic Knights would be bound to a long pole of wood or bone. They would be borne to the shrine of whatever local god the tribe worshipped. Then, the Knights would be burnt alive inside their armor.
There were also some rumors of cannibalism occurring after, with tribesmen consuming the roasted Knight flesh. However, it is doubtful that these deeds were actually committed. In a few isolated places where there actually was cannibalism of Teutonic Knights, it was entirely due to the actions of the Knights themselves.
When the Teutonic Knights would move in to baptize and Christianize the Old Prussians, they would also take a great deal of each tribe’s food stores. So if they refused to convert to Christianity, the survivors of the Knight’s wrath were left starving. It should come at little surprise that they resorted to killing and eating their enemies in desperation.
But cannibalism notwithstanding, the Old Prussians were fighting a losing struggle. They were extremely decentralized, with not even a rudiment of a unifying government. So the various Baltic tribes could not band together to resist the Teutonic Knights. Once they converted to Christianity, the Knights left them relatively alone.
Because of this early persecution, the Baltic tribes were driven into smaller, more centralized communities. They would survive for centuries, almost autonomous, to become one of the most legendary and mysterious subgroups of Teutonic culture.
Under the authority of Pope Gregory IX, the Teutonic Knights were to rule the Old Prussian lands under a sovereign state. This state, known as the Ordenstaat, would have dynamic borders for its entire future.
(Growth of the Teutonic State from 1225 to 1250)
The initial territory granted by Konrad of Masovia the small Chełmno Land area. By 1250 the Knights had Christianized a large (by the standard of the day) amount of land northeast of the Chełmno Land. The Knights founded cities around castles built at Lidzbank, Kwidzýn, Malbork, Elblag, and Pregnore.
In 1237 the Teutonic Knights inherited the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, thus expanding their territory into Latvia and Estonia. However, some areas of Old Prussia would remain unconquered and pagan.
But the rest of the territory was now Christian. Although it was by the sword as opposed to voluntary, there was still a large amount of territory waiting to be incorporated into the realm of Christendom. This was tasked to William of Modena, a Papal official.
William divided Teutonic Prussia into four bishoprics. These were Culmerland, Pomesania, Warmia, and Sambia. These were to be organized under the Archbishop of Riga, who was himself based in Visby on the island of Gotland.
The borders of the mid-13th century Ordenstaat would remain almost static until the beginning of the 1300s.
But somewhere between 1303 and 1307 (sources differ), the Ordenstaat entered into a regional war between Poland and Brandenburg. In any case, Władysław I also called “Władysław I the elbow high,” called on the Teutonic Knights for aid in the war.
Soon after entering the war, the Teutonic Order, led by Landmeister Heinrich von Plötzke, seized the city of Gdańsk (later renamed Danzig). All Brandenburgers were immediately driven out.
With the job they had been hired for completed, Grand Master Siegfried von Feuchtwangen presented King Władysław with a bill for the Ordenstaat’s reward for assistance. Von Feuchtwangen asked for 10,000 silver marks. However, Władysław only agreed to give the Teutonic Knights 300 marks.
Following this ridiculously low offer, the Knights completely occupied Gdańsk, with a noticeable increase in dissent. There were several uprisings over the next few months, all of which were bloodily suppressed by the Teutonic Knights. These suppressions came at a great cost, especially to the German working class.
Slightly less than a year after the occupation, Margrave Waldemar, the ruler of Brandenburg, grew weary of prolonged war. He offered peace to the Ordenstaat. The Teutonic Knights was sold—for a hefty 10,000-mark price—Brandenburg’s claims on Pomerelia. There was now a land connection between the Ordenstaat and the Holy Roman Empire. This allowed reinforcements and supplies to travel from Vorpommern (Hither Pomerania) to Prussia.
An example of just how vulnerable Knightly orders were was demonstrated dissolution and persecution of the Knights Templar in 1307. The Teutonic Knights wanted to avoid the same fate. So two years later, in 1309, the capital of the Ordenstaat was moved out of Venice and to Malbork, a town on the Nogat River, a distributary of the Vistula.
(the Vistula river in light blue and major distributararies in darker blue)
To further increase the effectiveness of the Teutonic Knights, the positions of Landmeister and Grand Master were merged. This new ruler-general now had much more control over the Ordenstaat. The Knights’ fears were justified when Pope Clement V ordered an investigation into the Knights on an allegation of serious misconduct. These claims were falsified through the able defense of hired jurists.
But the result of this was an alienated pope, and a Papacy issuing legal threats to the Teutonic Knights. Pope Clement V promised them a similar fate to the Knights Templar.
There was a drawback to the transaction with Brandenburg, however. This controversial business deal would bring the Ordenstaat into conflict with Poland. As Pomerelia came under Teutonic domination, the Poles renewed their claim on the region. War was ignited.
The first Polish-Teutonic War, beginning in 1320, was fought over Polish claims to the province of Danzig. However, this war was inconclusive, and the peace was fragile. War again broke out in 1333. This war lasted for a decade.
After ten years of bloody, brutal fighting, the Teutonic Knights emerged victorious. In the Peace of Kalisz in 1343, the king of Poland agreed to recognize Teutonic hegemony over Pomerelia and Culmerland. In addition, Poland renounced its claims on the region. However, the Knights had to make a concession. Kuyavia and Dobrzyń Land were returned to Poland.
This war was a boost to the Ordenstaat and a blow to polish honor. It would leave them brooding, lusting for revenge. But the peace remained—albeit somewhat uneasy—between Poland and the Ordenstaat for the next fifty years.