Monday, September 1, 2014

Teutonic Knights

Another chivalric order that was established during the Crusades was the "Orden der Brüder vom Deutschen Haus St. Mariens in Jerusalem" or Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem, or also known as the Teutonic Knights. This medieval order was primarily composed of German nobles and, similar in duty with the Templars and Hospitallers, it was established to aid Christians on their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to establish hospitals, but in comparison to other knighthoods was relatively small.

Noblemen would serve as either Knights or Priests (thought nobility was not required for priests) while those of common lineage would compose the infantry or work as book-keepers or in the hospitals (this third class was often referred to as serving brothers). The knights took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Life as a knight was communal, they owned nothing personally and, in the keeping with their vows, the armor they donned in battle was plain and simple. The uniform of the knights was a white surcoat with a black cross (often a cross pattée) upon the left shoulder. The squires also used these same colors so they could be identified with the Teutonic Order. The motto of the Order was: "Helfen, Wehren, Heilen" or "Help, Defend, Heal". 


The members of the order assembled to form the "Generalkapitel," or General Chapter, which was often used to elect the new Grand Master met annually and usually was only attended by the higher officer. For the elections, the Großkomtur of the late Hochmeister set the date and location of the elections, and once assembled he nominated a knight to serve as first elector. If approved, the first elector then nominated a second elector. This process continued until eight knights, one priest, and four members of common lineage were selected. This committee would meet privately where the first elector would make nominations for Hochmeister and only a majority vote would result in a new Hochmeister. The decision would be taken before the Generalkapitel where priests would escort the new Hochmeister to the altar to take the oath of office all the while singing the hymn "Te deum laudamus."

The order was led by the "Hochmeister" or Grand Master who was still considered "first among equals" and who served for life or resignation. This position had to be chosen from the knight class only which meant that the Hochmeister was of noble birth. Until 1525, this position was elected by the Generalkapitel and until 1466 was also the Sovereign Prince of Prussia.

Appointed by the Hochmeister, the Großgebietiger were high officers that filled the following offices: 
The Großkomtur who was the deputy of the Hochmeister and had supervision over the clergy; sometimes referred to as Preceptor
The Treßler or Treasurer
The Spitler who was responsible for all hospital affairs
The Trapier who was responsible for dressing and armament
The Marschall who was the chief of military affairs
There were also a variety of special offices that worked for the Hochmeister. The Kanzler, or Chancellor, of the Hochmeister and the Deutschmeister. The Chancellor took care of the keys and seals and was recording clerk of the GeneralkapitelThe order was given the right to mint their own currency in 1246 and the production was overseen by the Münzmeister, or master of the mint, of Thorn. The Pfundmeister, or customs master, of Danzig. The Generalprokurator represented the order at the Holy See. The Großschäffer was a trading representative with special authority.

The Teutonic Knights were divided into three national chapters: Prussia, Livland, and the territory of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Each national chapter was led by a Landmeister which position was elected by the regional chapters. After 1309, the Landmeister of Prussia was also the Hochmeister. The Landmeister of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was also known as the Deutschmeister, and after Prussia and Livland were lost became the Hochmeister. With the order spread throughout the Holy Roman Empire, there was also a regional structure with supervision being left to a Bailiwick. The administrative unit at the local level was known as a Kommende and was ruled by a Komtur (Commander)


The Teutonic Knights were formed and recognized by Pope Celestine III in 1192 in Acre. This order was started by merchants from Lübeck and Bremen who had set up a field hospital during the Siege of Acre. This hospital was needed as German knights and soldiers suffering from sickness or wounds were left unattended as most of them did not speak Latin or French. Eventually, a site within the walls of Acre was purchased. It was enlarged to include quarters for members, pilgrims, and soldiers.

By 1198 the order started to turn into military order which also started the position of Hochmeister or Grand Master. In 1209 the order dropped its hospital mission and became strictly a military order. The order was given land in present-day Germany and Italy, but also had property in Turkey and in the Levant (northeast of Acre). Most of the donations coming from the Holy Roman Empire. In 1214, Emperor Frederick I gave the position of Grand Master a spot in the imperial court and Frederick II exempted them from taxes and allowed the use of imperial lands.

Not as strong or popular as their Templar and Hospitaller orders, the Teutonic Knights were still known for their battle prowess. They moved most of their forces to Transylvania in 1211 to help defend the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary against the Kipchaks, a Turkic tribal confederation. This didn't last long and in 1225 these knights were expelled by force by King Andrew II of Hungary as it was alleged the knights were attempting to place themselves under Papal instead of Hungarian sovereignty.

In 1226, Konrad I, Duke of Masovia (northeast Poland) requested help from the order to protect the borders from the pagan Prussians who were accused of destroying crops, stealing cattle, razing towns, destroying convents, murder, and sacrificing victims to their pagan gods. In 1230, the Teutonic Knights took part in the Prussian Crusade which was a joint invasion of Prussia intended to Christianize the inhabitants of the area. The Holy Roman Emperor gave the order rights of conquest and possession of Prussia. The order erected a fortress at Thorn, or Toruń (birthplace of Nicolaus Copernicus) near the Vistula River and on a grove of oaks considered sacred by the pagan inhabitants.

The Teutonic Knights ruled Prussia as a sovereign monastic state (comparable to Knights Hospitallers in Rhodes and Malta). Fighting was fierce between the order and the native Prussians, but eventually, the fighting died down and the people started to assimilate to the culture, religion, and language perpetrated by the order. Eventually, Europeans (primarily Germanic, Flemish, or Dutch) started to emigrate to Prussia. In their conquest through the Baltic region, they defeated the Livonian Brothers of the Sword in 1237 at the Battle of Saule which resulted in the Livonian order being absorbed into the Teutonic Knights. During this time the order continued to conquer Prussian territory and even attempted to expand into the Russian Empire, but was repelled. The order then turned its focus to pagan Lithuania which was seen as equally brutal conflict as that in Prussia, but fighting in Lithuania would last for two centuries.

In Poland, the knights took over the property in Chelmno Land (northern central Poland) as a base of their operations. From this, the knights were able to create the independent Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights. This caused friction with the Polish monarchs and with problems with succession land disputes erupted. War erupted between Poland and the order. In 1291, the order moved its headquarters to Venice after the loss of Acre and the last Western holds in the Holy Land.

In 1309 the Knights moved their headquarters to Marienburg and the Landmeister of Prussia was merged with that of the Hochmeister. Fighting continued until 1343 when the papacy ended the conflict with the Treaty of Kalisz which left Chelmno Land to the knights, but the Poles regained Kuyavia and the Lands of Dobrzyń.

While fighting in Lithuania continued, the order was also involved with ending piracy in the Baltic Sea. The Victual Brothers were stationed on island, but were besieged and conquered in 1398.

Troubles with Poland would be reignited after the Grand Duke Jogaila of Lithuania was baptized into Christianity and married Queen Jadwiga of Poland, and subsequently became King of Poland. By 1407, the order had the lands of Prussia, Pomerelia, Samogitia, Courland, Livonia, Estonia, Gotland, Dagö, Ösel, and the Neumark. The new Lithuanian-Polish alliance did not trust the order and in 1409 the "Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War" began. The Teutonic Knights were defeated in 1410 by a Polish-Lithuanian army at the Battle of Grunwald. An attempt was made to take Marienburg (headquarters of the order), but this failed due to strong resistance.

The First Peace of Thorn was signed in 1411 which allowed the Teutonic Knights to retain most of their land, but their reputation was damaged and their power began to dwindle while Poland and Lithuania rose in power. Infighting began and after a decade they began to lose lands. The knights fought against Poland again with the Polish–Teutonic War which lasted from 1431 to 1435. This war was a result of the alliance between the Teutonic order and Švitrigaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, who was waging a civil war against his brother King Jogaila of Poland. The Teutonic Knights invaded Poland, but were defeated. Poland allied with the Hussites to prevent Teutonic support of Švitrigaila. In 1435, Polish forces defeated and suppressed the rebellion, and the Teutonic Knights signed the Peace of Brześć Kujawski.

In the next few decades, Prussia began to fall apart. Starting in 1454, the Prussian gentry and burghers rose against the order in what is known as the Thirteen Years' War. The Prussian gentry and burghers were supported by Poland and in 1466, the Second Peace of Thorn was signed recognizing Poland's rights over western Prussia. 

The Order maintained eastern Prussia with Königsberg as its headquarters and capital. However they were no longer considered sovereign and independent, but vassals of the King of Poland. By the end of the 15th century, it lost its property in Sicily and influence with the Papacy. The order lost complete control of Prussia and was ousted after the Polish-Teutonic War (1519-1521).

The Protestant Reformation had a strong effect on the order and in 1522 the Grand Master Albert of Brandenburg converted to Lutheranism, resigned from the order, and became the Duke of Prussia (a vassal of Poland). Martin Luther held a negative view of the order and actually wrote a letter to the knights trying to convince them to break their vows as he said they were no use for God.

The order continued to lose its lands during the following century, but did maintain many of its holdings in Protestant regions of Germany and Livonia. The Livonian property was lost in 1561 when neighboring powers started partitioning off the territory during the Livonian War. The remainder of the property was in the Holy Roman Empire and restructured the order with a 3-tier system: commanderies, bailiwicks, and the general chapter. After the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, the order was open to Protestants, but most were Catholic.

On February 9, 1801, the Treaty of Lunéville signed the peace between France and Holy Roman Empire, the latter being defeated and which resulted in the Teutonic Knights, the loss of their lands and possessions on the left bank of the Rhine River. In 1809 Napoleon Bonaparte forced its dissolution and lost control over its holdings to Napoleon's allies. It continued to exist, but only as a ceremonial organization in Tyrol and Austria until it was banned by Hitler in 1938. It was re-established after the end of WWII. Today it continues to exist as a philanthropic order in Vienna, Austria, seeking to care for German-speaking communities in foreign lands which was the original mission of the order. There is a Protestant branch still in existence in Utrecht, a province of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.


1. Moeller, C. (1912). Teutonic Order. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved August 14, 2014 from New Advent:

2. Teutonic Knights. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia:

3. Teutonic Knights. (n.d.). Retrieved from Middle Ages:

4. Urban, W. L. (2000). The Early Years of the Teutonic Order. In The Prussian Crusade. Chicago: Lithuanian Research and Studies Center. Retrieved from Monmouth College:

5. Woodhouse, F. C. (n.d.). Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History. Retrieved from World History Center:

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