The biggest battle of the Polish Middle Ages

Slawomir Blaut

The battle of Grunwald, as every heroic achievement in the nation’s history, has became a legend with time. Legend that is certified by facts. The stereotypes, referring to this theme and repeated by many people, have caused slight damage. Today, on the 600th anniversary of the battle, it is worth seeking answers to the question about the role of Grunwald in Poland’s history.

The Battle of Grunwald, fought on 15 July 1410, known from history textbooks and perhaps even more from the novel ‘Krzyzacy’ [The Teutonic Knights] by Henryk Sienkiewicz and the film of Aleksander Ford, was a big event in Poland’s history but for us, contemporary people, very distant. In the fields, where the battle was fought 600 years ago, for several years there have been re-enactments on the anniversary of the battle with the presence of over 1,000 ‘knights’ – lovers of history and military. The ‘battle’ is watched by ca. 100,000 people every year. A similar interest is given to the old Teutonic fortress in Malbork, popular with tourists. A week after the re-enactment in Grunwald there is an open-air show ‘Siege of Malbork.’
The 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald is not only a good occasion to show joy and pride of the victory of the Polish knights in the Middle Ages, as this anniversary is usually treated, but also a pretext to get to know the story of the famous battle and its times.
For ages the victory of Grunwald, initially used politically very little, has been a symbol of our power, predominance of the enemy; it strengthened Poles’ hearts in difficult moments, which we had many. During the partitions the victory of Grunwald, allegorically presented in the monumental painting of Jan Matejko, was our answer to kulturkampf like the novel ‘Krzyzacy’ by Sienkiewicz, in which the German religious brothers were depicted in the darkest colours. Their defeat at Grunwald was regarded as historical justice because Poles were so much harmed by the Teutonic Order. The film ‘Krzyzacy’, directed by Aleksander Ford and based on Sienkiewicz’s novel, was shot in 1960 in a similar political atmosphere, which was supported by the anti-German feelings after World War II and by the brotherhood of the Slavonic nations widely promoted in the socialist countries.
The present knowledge concerning Grunwald, far from simplifications, legends and myths, which Poles have preserved in the so-called collective memory for ages, is documented by hundreds of scientific dissertations. Jan Dlugosz’s chronicles entitles ‘Roczniki, czyli kroniki slawnego Krolestwa Polskiego’ [The Annals, i.e. the Chronicles of the Famous Kingdom of Poland] are still important sources. The outstanding Polish specialists in Medieval history Stefan Maria Kuczynski, Marian Biskup and Gerard Labuda made thorough analyses of this problem.

Good and bad Teutonic knights

The Teutonic Order, in its beginning and nowadays (as a charity active in Vienna under the patronage of the Habsburg family) has been rightly associated with Christian mission to help people. But in the Polish history it is seen as a personification of evil. The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary's Hospital in Jerusalem (Ordo fratrum domus hospitalis Sanctae Mariae Theutonicorum in Jerusalem) was created in 1190 in Acre to aid Christian pilgrims going to the Holy Land. It was changed into an order of knights in 1198 and became rich thanks to many land grants. The common name ‘the Cross Order’ comes from the black cross on the white coats of the religious knights. This glorious mission of the order ended when the Crusades were pushed from the Holy Land by the Turks. The German Order, which during the Crusades could not send 10 knights to the Crusaders forces, decided to settle in Eastern Europe, close to the German Empire. When the Knights failed to settle near the Hungarian border they created an independent state in Poland. Prince Konrad, Duke of Masovia, gave him the Chelmno Land in 1226.
Poland, and even more Lithuania, was on a lower level of civilisation than the German Empire. The feudal lords from the West saw those territories as wild lands inhabited by pagans. The German knights in habits easily gained favour of the Emperor and the Pope for their ‘evangelisation mission’. Poland’s rulers looked with astonishment and perhaps even with admiration and jealousy how the order organised its state. Their power arose practically from nothing. The Teutonic Knights enlarged their territory at the cost of Prussia and Poland, taking over Pomerelia. Wladyslaw the Short (Lokietek) and Kazimierz the Great fought against the Teutonic Knights but they were too weak to break their power. In 1237 the Teutonic Order absorbed the Livonian Brothers of the Sword and its next conquest was Samogitia, which separated the lands of the two orders and which belonged to the Great Duchy of Lithuania. When this country allied with the Kingdom of Poland by a personal union in 1385 it was clear that the new Polish king, a Lithuanian Wladyslaw Jagiello, would not leave his homeland alone in its fight against the Knights.

The great war 1409-11

After the christianisation of Lithuania conducted by Jagiello and Queen Jadwiga the aim of the Order – spread of Christianity in pagan Lithuania, was not valid. In spring 1409 there was an uprising against the Teutonic Knights in Samogitia. Lithuania, supported by the Kingdom of Poland, defended the Samogitians. On 6 August, the Grand Master Ulryk von Jungingen declared a war against the Polish king by writing. Both conflicting parties made excellent preparations, including diplomatic ones, for war in the previous autumn and winter. The Polish king showed a special strategic art. In order to join the Lithuanian forces of Prince Vytautas and strike at the heart of the Order – Malbork, the Polish forces made a pontoon bridge over the Vistula at Czerwinsk. On 10 July 1410 the Teutonic forces faced the Polish-Lithuanian troops at Grunwald. The Germans call this first confrontation the First Battle of Tannenberg. Two cavalries began fighting. In the Middle Ages every knight went to war with two servants on horses, equipped with crossbows (crossbowmen). These three riders were called ‘lance’ after the basic weapon of the knight pikeman. Few knights had full armour because it cost the equivalent of 17 oxen. Most knights had lighter mails. Apart from the knights – gentry from the Polish lands (the so-called general levy) there were also mercenaries. The army was divided into banners – units from particular lands. Most likely, at Grunwald there was only a small number of infantry at the Teutonic cannons – completely ineffective in field battles in those times. The Teutonic forces had ca. 15,000-20,000 men, including only ca. 350 brothers-knights as commanders (there were ca. 700 brothers-knights in the whole Order). The forces embraced knights from the lands belonging to the Teutonic state and from the German Empire as well as units from all over Europe – knights who came as they did during the Crusades –and mercenaries (ca. 3,700). The Polish army, together with a small number of mercenaries, including Bohemians, amounted to ca. 20,000 and the Lithuanian troops s well as the Ruthenian and Tartar units – 10,000 men. The clothes and armour of both armies did not differ much and King Jagiello ordered his knights to wear straw ropes to differ from their enemies and use the watchwords ‘Krakow’ and ‘Vilnius.’
The battle began at noon when it was hot. Earlier King Jagiello heard two Masses and knighted several hundred men. The irritated Grand Master, whose army had been ready for battle, sent two heralds with invitation to battle. Two bare swords were given to Jagiello, which was a formal invitation to the battle according to the knight’s custom. After the victory the swords were regarded as a symbol of the Teutonic Knights’ pride. The swords were put in the Wawel castle but during the partitions of Poland they were taken to Russia and lost there. Before the attack the Polish forces sang ‘Bogurodzica’ and then the assault of the Lithuanian forces and several Polish banners began. After an hour the Lithuanian forces were defeated by the forces of the order. During the battle there was an alarming incident – the banner with the White Eagle, the so-called great gonfanon, fell to the ground but immediately some Polish knights lifted it high (the disappearance of the banner was a signal of a coming defeat and a signal to withdraw). After six hours of heavy fighting – during which the units took turns to have some rest, treat wounds, change horses or complete armour) one could see that the Polish-Lithuanian troops were gaining victory. Undoubtedly, a disadvantage of the Teutonic forces was the smaller number of armoured men than their opponents and their multi-nationality. The guest troops of the Order (e.g. the banner of the Chelmno Land submitted in the battlefield and afterwards its commander was beheaded by the Order) and the mercenaries did not want to sacrifice their lives as the Polish or Lithuanian men did. We fought for our homeland. The Grand Master tried to change the course of the battle leading his banners but it did not change the situation in the battlefield. All the commanders of the Order were killed and the Teutonic camp was captured. The Teutonic knights lost ca. 10,000 men whereas our losses were small. Ten days after the battle the Polish forces reached Malbork (Marienburg). But they did not conquer it. The defender of the capital, and consequently the whole Teutonic state, was Henryk von Pauen, a komtur of Schwetz (Swiecie). The Peace of Thorn (Torun) was signed on 1 February 1411. Its terms did not bring much to the victorious party: the Dobrzyn Land returned to Poland and Lithuania regained Samogitia but only till the death of Jagiello and Vytautas, then it was to return to the order. The Teutonic Knights paid big ransom for the captives. The other questions were to be negotiated. But the Knights did not gain power after the Battle of Grunwald and with time the lands of the Knights were under Polish overlordship. The first treaty in Torun was completed in 1466 (after the Thirteen Years’ War won by Poland).

Memory about the victory

Poles have always remembered their great victory over the Teutonic Knights. The 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald held in Krakow was greatly echoed in the Polish lands under the partitions. The anniversary ceremony was a demonstration of patriotism and was to encourage all Poles. It gathered 150,000 guests, including Henryk Sienkiewicz and Ignacy Paderewski, one of the main sponsors of the Grunwald Monument in Krakow. The song ‘Rota’ [The oath], which text was written by Maria Konopnicka, was performed for the first time in public.
The German propaganda used the matter of Grunwald many a time. The partitions of the Polish Commonwealth in the 18th century were regarded as a revenge for the defeat of the Teutonic state. At the beginning of World War I, in 1914, the Second Reich officially recognised the victory over the Russians in the Second Battle of Tannenberg as a successful revenge for the battle of 1410. The leader of the Third Reich used the Teutonic legacy for propaganda purposes but he sent the religious brothers – who associated themselves in the restored Catholic order in 1929 – to the concentration camp in Dachau. In 1938 there was a dispute concenring the stamp depicting Jadwiga and Jagiello with the swords of Grunwald and a Teutonic helmet at their feet. The Germans demanded those symbols to be removed. After the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising on 1 August 1944, Himmler referred to the First Battle of Tannenberg in his conversation with Hitler, claiming that the capital of the Polish nation that had been on the Germans’ way to the East for ages, including the Battle of Grunwald, had to be destroyed.
Although the official German propaganda and part of their historiography remembered the defeat of 1410, the average German in the Reich, for whom the history of the Knights was not an event of special importance, had no complexes related to that, which could be testified by nine different German translations of the novel ‘Krzyzacy’ by Sienkiewicz.
Today the memory of the triumph has remained. We rejoice at the re-enactments of the famous battle in the fields of Grunwald. We admire the architecture of Malbork and other Teutonic castles in our lands. Each of us has access to reliable knowledge about the heritage of the Teutonic Knights and their role in Poland’s history. It is worth referring to this knowledge on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald.

"Niedziela" 28/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: