John Florens | Mar 11, 2023
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Vitold (in Belarusian: Вітаўт?, transliterated: Vitaŭt; in Ruthenian: Vitovt; in Latin: Alexander Vitoldus; in High German protomodern: Wythaws or Wythawt (Senieji Trakai, c. 1350 - Trakai, Oct. 27, 1430) was grand duke of Lithuania from 1401 to 1430, as well as having served in his lifetime as prince of Grodno (1370-1382), of Luc'k (1387-1389) and duke of Trakai. He was also offered the crown by the Hussites, but he refused.
He is considered the most influential Lithuanian ruler of the Middle Ages and is still considered a national hero in Lithuania today; Vytautas is also a popular male name in Lithuania. In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of his death, the newly founded Vitoldo Magno University was named after him. Monuments in his honor exist in many cities in independent Lithuania of the interwar period (1918-1940). Vitoldo expressed himself in the Lithuanian language when relating to his cousin Jogaila, king of Poland since 1386.
Vitoldo's uncle, Algirdas, was Grand Duke of Lithuania until his death in 1377. Algirdas and Vitoldo's father Kęstutis had ruled jointly, giving rise to a sort of duumvirate: Algirdas administered the territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the east and Kęstutis those in the west, i.e., the areas subject to frequent attacks by the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights. Algirdas was succeeded by his son Jogaila and a power struggle ensued: in 1380, Jogaila signed the secret Treaty of Dovydiškės with the Teutonic order in an anti-Kęstutis capacity. When the latter found out in 1381, he conquered Vilnius, imprisoned Jogaila and appointed himself grand duke. In any case, Jogaila managed to escape and set up an army against Kęstutis, although the two counterparts never fought on a battlefield. Shortly before this eventuality occurred, Kęstutis went to negotiate together with Vitoldo at Jogaila's, but Jogaila arrested them and transferred them to Krėva Castle. A week later, Kęstutis passed away and it is uncertain whether he died of natural causes or because he was assassinated.
In 1382 Vitoldo escaped from Krėva by disguising himself in women's clothes and went to the monastic state, seeking the support of the Teutonic order, which at the time was in negotiations with Jogaila to sign the Treaty of Dubysa, by which the Lithuanian ruler promised to accept Christianity, become an ally of the order, and cede part of Samogitia up to the Dubysa River to the crusaders. The treaty was never ratified, however, and in the summer of 1383 hostilities between Jogaila and the knights resumed. Meanwhile, Vitoldo received the sacrament of baptism according to the Orthodox rite and was given the name Wigand (Lithuanian: Vygandas). Vitoldo participated in several raids against his cousin Jogaila. In January 1384, Vitoldo promised to cede part of Samogitia to the Teutonic order as far as the Nevėžis River in exchange for his recognition as grand duke of Lithuania. However, in July of the same year, the Lithuanian decided to break relations with the Teutonic and reconciled with Jogaila; he participated in the burning of three important castles garrisoned by the Germans and reconquered all the lands administered by Kęstutis, with the exception of Trakai.
In 1385, Jogaila concluded the union of Krewo with Poland, through which he married the young Hedwig and acquired the crown, becoming known from then on as Ladislaus II Jagellon (Władysław II Jagiełło). Vitoldo participated in the union ceremony and in 1386 was baptized a second time as a Catholic, receiving the name Alexander (Aleksandras).
Ladislaus II left his brother Skirgaila as regent in Lithuania. Noting Skirgaila's unpopularity and bolstered by the support of part of the Lithuanian nobility, Vitoldo sniffed at the opportunity to become grand duke. In 1389, he attacked Vilnius but failed, and in early 1390 he decided to ally with the Teutonic order again by signing the Treaty of Königsberg (1390). Vitoldo had to reiterate the contents of the 1384 agreement and surrender Samogitia. Around that time, to gain more influence, Vitoldo married off his only daughter Sophia to Basil I of Russia in 1391.
The Polish nobles were very unhappy that their new king was spending so much time on Lithuanian affairs, and moreover it seemed clear that the war that broke out in 1390 would not benefit Poland. In 1392, Ladislaus II sent Henry of Masovia with an offer to appoint Vitoldo in Skirgaila's place: the former accepted and reneged a second time on his alliance with the Teutonic people despite the assurances they asked for by burning three Teutonic castles before returning to Vilnius. Ladislaus II and his cousin signed the Treaty of Astrava by which Vitoldo recovered all the lands of Kęstutis, including Trakai, becoming its duke, plus other fiefs. Vitoldo would rule Lithuania in Ladislaus' name, recognizing his authority as "supreme duke." After Vitoldo's death, it was expected that the lands in his possession and the powers vested in him would revert to the Polish king.
Policy toward the East
Vitoldo continued the campaign started by Algirdas to control as much Ruthenian land as possible. Much of the geographical region was already under the rule of Lithuania, but there were still lands belonging to the Mongols. Toktamish, khan of the Golden Horde, asked Vitoldo for support when he lost his throne in 1395 after losing it to Tamerlane. The Lithuanian was willing to reach a military agreement with Toktamish, provided that the latter ceded part of Ruthenia once he took the throne. In 1398, Vitoldo's army arrived in Crimea and built a fortification there: it was at this time that Lithuania came close to reaching the height of its conquests, overlooking both the Baltic and Black Seas. An unspecified number of Tatar prisoners forcibly arrived in Lithuania Propria.
Continued attempts by Poland to subordinate Lithuania prompted Vitold to make a third attempt to ingratiate himself with the order with the Treaty of Salynas in October 1398. In it, the grand duke then known as Supremus Dux Lithuaniae, effectively handed over Samogitia to the knights and joined them in fighting near Pskov and Velikij Novgorod, then forcing them to pay substantial tribute.
As a result of his victorious campaign against Tamerlane, Vitoldo and Ladislaus II gained the support of Pope Boniface IX because they were believed to have initiated a crusade against the Mongols. Such a conclusion by the pontiff suggests that Rome had finally accepted the idea that the last state in Europe had finally accepted Christianity and was able to defend the new faith on its own. The Teutonic knights theoretically had no more motivation to continue their centuries-old battle against Lithuania. However, the campaign against the Golden Horde ended in a resounding defeat at the Battle of the Vorskla River in 1399: more than twenty princes, including two of Ladislaus' brothers, were killed and Vitold himself barely escaped alive. This was a clash that had considerable unexpected repercussions in Lithuania and Poland, involving the rebellion of several towns against Vitoldo. Indeed, as Zenonas Norkus reports, echoing Adshead in turn:
Smolensk, recaptured by its hereditary ruler Juri, and not recaptured by the Lithuanians until 1404, deserves special mention. Vitold declared war in 1406-1408 against his son-in-law Basil I of Russia, and Švitrigaila, a brother of Ladislaus who aimed to become grand duke of Lithuania, secured the support of the Teutonic order by self-declaring himself grand prince. A major confrontation between the two armies ended without a battle with the understanding of Ugra, whereby Velikij Novgorod was assigned to Ladislaus II's brother Lengvenis, and the important city of Pskov to Jogaila's ambassador Jerzy Nos, constituting a clear violation of the Peace of Raciąż. The war with Muscovy ended in December 1408, on terms that made further conflict with the Teutonic order inevitable, despite Hermann II of Celje's attempt to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Wars against the Teutonic order
With the Treaty of Salynas, as mentioned above, Vitoldo had transferred Samogizia to the Teutonic Knights: the region was particularly important to the order located in Prussia because it separated it from the Knights of Livonia, located in present-day Latvia and Estonia. The two religious groups wished to join territorially and form a powerful coalition: however, the knights held Samogitia for only three years, as on March 13, 1401, the Samogites, supported by Vytautas, rebelled and burned two castles. The knights received support from Švitrigaila, the brother of Ladislaus who wished to assume the title of grand duke. In 1404 the Peace of Raciąż was signed, which essentially repeated the contents of the Salynas Agreement: Samogizia would remain in Teutonic hands. Poland officially declared that it was unwilling to support Lithuania in the event of another war. Although the knights promised to support Vitoldo in his campaigns to the east and not to consider legitimate the claims of the Gediminids who claimed the title of grand duke of Lithuania, the disagreements were not completely resolved.
In 1408, Vitoldo ended his conquering activities in present-day Belarus and returned to the Samogitian question. In 1409, a second Samogiti revolt against the Teutonic knights, who were guilty of imposing new tributes, took place as soon as the rebels burned the castle of Skirsnemunė (a settlement not far from today's Lithuanian-Russian border). Letters of protest from the people of Lower Lithuania, aimed at pointing out the order's vexatious attitudes, reached the curia as well as numerous courts of European princes and the guilds of important Western European cities. Vitold candidly supported the second insurrection, as did Ladislaus II from Poland. Open support for the rebellion in a territory claimed by the order prompted Hochmeister Ulrich von Jungingen to spur the parties to settle the issue on a battlefield. On August 6, 1409, von Jungingen had his herald bring the challenge placard on behalf of himself and the order to the king of Poland. This action marked the beginning of the Grossen Streythe (great quarrel), which in the terminology of the Teutonicists represented the war against the Poles and Lithuanians.
The order first invaded Greater Poland and conquered several castles: having ascertained the situation, an armistice was negotiated in the fall of 1409 with the mediation of the German Roman Emperor Wenceslas of Luxembourg. The following year, on July 15, 1410, one of the most important battles of the Late Middle Ages for the fate of Eastern Europe took place; from the clash, which has gone down in history as the Battle of Tannenberg (Polish historians call it the Battle of Grunwald, while Lithuanians the Teutonic knights came out soundly defeated and from then on entered a slow but irreversible crisis. Despite his great position of advantage, Ladislaus II, at the head of men who had come from Galicia, Volinia, Podolia and Polesia, hesitated and did not strike the decisive blow at Marienburg in a swift manner, giving his opponents time to be able to defend themselves in their stronghold unscathed.
With the Treaty of Toruń in 1411, the Teutonic order had to renounce Samogitia, in addition to having to make substantial reparations to rebuild razed fortifications and religious buildings. Ultimately, the monastic state also renounced making new incursions into Lithuania, which in the meantime had largely converted to Christianity due to Polish influence: the Teutonic managed thanks to Sigismund of Hungary to obtain less onerous terms than expected. Precisely because of the disruptive effects caused by the defeat of the Germans, some authors consider the Lithuanian crusade ended after the Battle of Grunwald.
From that point on, the union between Poland and Lithuania began to be perceived in Europe as a great power, arousing great interest in Vitoldo's policies from the Roman curia.
When the new Grandmaster Heinrich von Plauen opposed the arbitral ruling of the imperial envoy Benedikt Makrai in 1413, who had assigned the right bank of the Memel to the Grand Duchy, he was deposed by Michael Küchmeister von Sternberg. The new governor sought peace with Poland, well aware of the fragilities the state was living with at that time. However, when he too rejected Makrai's arbitration decision, the Poles invaded Warmian as part of the Hunger War of 1414: having been defeated, von Sternberg renounced his claims.
This was followed by ceasefires extended several times by various conflict mediators, which were extremely costly for the Teutonic people, as they were weakened by both past wars and reparations. They had to conduct costly negotiations at the Council of Constance, as well as justify their own assaults, and later elsewhere, but the situation became so financially perilous that cuts had to be made in war expenditures (a unicum if one thinks of the monastic state's investments in previous centuries). It was not until 1422 that the borders with Lithuania were finally established with the Treaty of Melno. The demarcation would remain unchanged for some 500 years and until the Memel territory dispute of 1923. With peace restored, Vitoldo was able to concentrate on the reforms to be implemented in Lithuania and relations with Poland.
The conversion of Samogitia, which was thus returned to the hands of the Grand Duchy, was quite problematic because of the deep rootedness of the old beliefs, and the first decisive steps took place only eventually in 1413, two years after the turbulent period of conflict of the previous years. In November 1413, Vitoldo himself sailed on the Nemunas River and the Dubysa in order to travel to the vicinity of Betygala, where he supervised the baptism of the first groups of Samogites for a week. In 1416 the construction of the first eight parish churches was begun, the first of which turned out to be Medininkai, around 1464.The diocese of Samogitia was officially born on October 23, 1417, and Matthias of Trakai became the first bishop in northwestern Lithuania.
Vitold spent about four years with the Teutonic order during the Civil War, having the opportunity to study the architecture of German castles and adopt some of their elements in his residence in Vilnius. Indeed, he chose to make the capital a more prosperous and safer commercial center. During his reign, the upper castle of the city complex underwent the major renovations. After a major fire in 1419, Vitoldo encouraged the construction of some service buildings in the complex and the destroyed part of the fortification. The remains visible today date from this era.
Diplomatic relations with Poland
On June 22, 1399, Hedwig of Poland and wife of Ladislaus gave birth to a baby girl, christened Elizabeth Bonifacia, who, however, died within a month as did her mother. Many believed that the king had thus forfeited his right to the crown with Hedwig's death, but there were no other known heirs to the ancient Polish monarchs-all the potential competitors, previously in great numbers, were but distant relatives in Lesser Poland, and although Jogaila had to face opposition from time to time, his status as king was more or less always accepted de jure and de facto even by the newly emerging aristocracy, that of Greater Poland. Moreover, the defeat at Vorskla forced a reassessment of the relationship between Poland and Lithuania. The Union of Vilnius and Radom of 1401 confirmed Vitoldo's role as grand duke under Ladislaus's rule, securing the title of ruler of Lithuania for Ladislaus's heirs rather than Vitoldo's: if Ladislaus had died without an heir, the Lithuanian boyars would have had to elect a new monarch. Since neither cousin had any children yet, the implications of the pact were unpredictable: nevertheless, synergies were created between the Lithuanian and Polish nobility (szlachta) and a permanent defensive alliance between the two states, thus strengthening Lithuania's position in a further war that broke out against the Teutonic order, in which Poland officially did not participate. The unique feature of this union was that the Lithuanian nobility presented its own document: for the first time someone other than the grand dukes had a major role in state affairs.
Vitoldo was one of the supporters and originators of the Horodło union of 1413: according to the act, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania would preserve a grand duke free to rule in multiple spheres and its own parliament. At the same time, both the Polish and Lithuanian Sejm would discuss all major issues together. The event turned out to be crucial culturally and politically because it granted Lithuanian Christian nobles the same rights as the Polish szlachta, as well as Orthodox nobles. This opened the way for more contacts and cooperation between the aristocracy of the two realities.
In January 1429, at the Congress of Luc'k at the suggestion of Sigismund, king of Hungary, it was suggested that Vitoldo be crowned as king of Lithuania. This caused a major crisis between the Lithuanian ruler, his cousin Ladislaus and the Polish nobles. Vitoldo accepted the offer of the crown, apparently with Ladislaus's tacit approval, but Polish forces intercepted the transport at the Polish-Lithuanian border, and the coronation was cancelled. This was the first attempt to restore the monarchy in Lithuania since Mindaugas.
Reforms and death
Vitoldo encouraged the economic development of his state and introduced a variety of reforms. Under his rule, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania gradually became more centralized, as local princes with dynastic ties to the throne were replaced by governors loyal to Vitoldo: nevertheless, one should not make the mistake of regarding Vitoldo as the visionary forerunner of a unitary state. The people named were often wealthy landowners who formed the core of the Lithuanian nobility. During his rule, the influential Radvila (Radziwiłł) and Goštautas families embarked on their path of ascendancy.
In 1398, Vitoldo spurred the families of the Karaites (388 groups) and Tatar peoples to settle in Lithuania. The main role to which they were assigned involved the protection of castles and bridges, but these also operated as translators, farmers, traders and diplomats. A celebration of the Tatar community towards the ruler took place in 1930 in the Vilnius Kenesa on the anniversary of his death.
Vitoldo died in Trakai Castle in 1430, nearly four decades after his rise to power. His body was buried in Vilnius Cathedral, but his remains were lost. Because he left no heirs, a struggle soon ensued that resulted in civil war.
Born in 1350 in Senieji Trakai Castle, Vitoldo was the son of Kęstutis and his wife Birutė. He was also a cousin and childhood friend of Jogaila, king of Poland in 1386. Around 1370 he married Anna, who gave birth to a girl named Sofia. This one later went on to marry Basil I, Grand Prince of Moscow, and mother and regent on behalf of his son Basil II. After Anna's death in 1418, Vitoldo married his niece Uliana Olshanska, daughter of Ivan Olshanski who lived until 1448. Because of the consanguineous relationship between the two not-yet-married couple, the bishop of Vilnius was unwilling to perform the ceremony without a papal dispensation; however, Jan Kropidło, archbishop of Gniezno, had no such qualms and married them anyway on November 13, 1418. According to the 16th-century chronicle of Bychowiec, his first wife was a certain Maria Łukomska, although this information is not confirmed by any other source.
Vytautas appears in several works of fiction concerning the Polish-Lithuanian conflict with the Teutonic order. He appears in the narrative poem Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz and was later played by Józef Kostecki in the 1960 film The Teutonic Knights, an adaptation of a novel written by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
In 2014, a short animation was produced by "Four Directions of Fairy Tales" (Cztery Strony Bajek) in association with the Association of Polish Karaites, which deals with the story of the Karaites under Vytautas and the ruler's magic horse. Voice-overs have been translated into several languages, including Karaimo, Polish, English, and Lithuanian.
In the video game Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition, Vitoldo appears among the available characters of cavalry heroes.
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