Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History
Title: Teutonic Knights: Their Organization And History
Author: Woodhouse, F. C.
1190 - 1809
Scarcely less renowned than the Knights Templars, the Teutonic Knights
carried the spirit and traditions of the great military religious orders of
the Middle Ages far into the modern period. No earlier date for the
foundation of the order than 1190 is given on recognized authority, its actual
beginning, like that of the other orders of its kind, being humble and
It appears that about 1128 a wealthy German, having participated in the
siege and capture of Jerusalem, settled there, and soon began to show pity for
his unfortunate countrymen among the pilgrims who came, receiving some of them
into his own house to be cared for. When the work became too great for him
there, he built a hospital, in which he devoted himself to nursing sick
pilgrims, to whose support he likewise gave all his wealth. Still the task
outgrew the means at his command, and in order to increase his charity he
began to solicit alms. While he took care of the men, his wife performed a
like service for poor women pilgrims.
Soon they were joined by many of their wealthier countrymen who had come
to fight for the Holy Land. Presently they "banded themselves together, after
the pattern of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and united the care of the
sick and poor with the profession of arms in their defence, under the title of
Hospitalers of the Blessed Virgin." These Teutonic Hospitalers continued their
work, in hospital and field, until the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin in
1187, and the conqueror, in recognition of their benevolent services,
consented that some of them should remain there and continue their work. Out
of these lowly beginnings grew one of the most powerful and widespread of the
military religious orders.
It was during the siege of Acre, 1189-1191, that the Teutonic Order
received its final and complete organization as one of the great military
religious orders of Europe.
The German soldiers suffered great miseries from sickness and from their
wounds, and as their language was not understood by the French and other
European contingents of the crusading army, they were left untended and
friendless. To meet this want, some citizens of Bremen and Lubeck provided a
sort of field hospital, and devoted themselves to the care of their wounded
and sick countrymen. These were soon joined by others, and by the brethren of
the Hospital of the Blessed Virgin at Jerusalem, whom Saladin had banished
from the city, and the little body came to be known by the designation of the
Teutonic Knights of the Hospital of the Blessed Virgin at Jerusalem.
It is said that the order owed its constitution to Frederick, Duke of
Swabia; but there is much obscurity, and little authentic record to determine
this or to furnish particulars of the transaction.
The order seems, however, to have been confirmed by Pope Celestine III,
the constitution and rules of the Templars and Hospitalers being taken as the
model for the new order, Henry de Walpot being the first master. This appears
to have happened about 1190, though some authorities maintain that it was not
till 1191 or even later. While, therefore, the three great orders had much in
common, there was this difference in their original foundation. The
Hospitalers were at first a nursing order, and gradually became military; the
Templars were always purely and solely military; while the Teutonic Knights
were from the first both military and nursing.
Contemporary chroniclers compare the Teutonic Knights with the mystic
living creature seen by Ezekiel, having the faces of a man and of a lion, the
former indicating the charity with which they tended the sick; the latter, the
courage and daring with which they met and fought the enemies of Christ.
The Teutonic Knights continued their care of the sick soldiers till Acre
was taken in July, 1191, by the united forces of Philip Augustus, King of
France, and Richard Coeur de Lion, King of England. After the capture of Acre
by the Christian army, Henry de Walpot purchased a site within the city, and
built a church and hospital for his order, the first that it possessed. To
these buildings were gradually added lodgings for the members of the order,
for pilgrims, and for the soldiers which were enlisted to assist the knights
in the field.
All this cost a large sum of money; but, as many wealthy Germans had
enrolled themselves as knights, means were not wanting as the occasion for
them occurred and the requirements of the order developed. Among the greatest
of the earlier benefactors was Frederick, Duke of Swabia, who contributed
money and aided the progress of the order by his influence, and, when he died
at Acre, was interred in the church of the knights. Contemporary writers speak
in the highest terms of his virtues, saying that he lived a hero and died a
At this period and for the rest of its history, the constitution of the
Teutonic order embraced two classes of members - the knights and the clergy -
both being exclusively of German birth. The knights were required to be of
noble family, and, besides the ordinary threefold monastic vows, took a fourth
vow, that they would devote themselves to the care of the sick and to fight
the enemies of the faith. Their dress was black, over which a white cloak
with a black cross upon the left shoulder was worn. The clergy were not
necessarily of noble birth, their duties being to minister to the order in
their churches, to the sick in the hospitals and on the field of battle.
To these two classes, who constituted the order, were added serving
brethren, called Heimlike and Soldner, and in Latin, Familiares. Many of
these gave their services gratuitously from religious motives; others received
payment and were really servants. The knights selected their esquires from
among the serving brothers. All these wore a dress of the same color as the
knights, that they might be known at once to belong to the order.
The original rules of the order were very severe. All the members lived
in common; they slept in dormitories on small and hard beds; they took their
meals together in the refectory, and their fare was meagre and of the plainest
quality. They were required to attend the daily services in the church, and
to recite certain prayers and offices privately. They were not permitted to
leave their convent, nor to write or receive letters, without permission of
their superior. Their clothes, armor, and the harness of their horses were
all of the plainest description; all gold, jewels, and other costly ornaments
being strictly forbidden. Arms of the best temper and horses of good breed
were provided. When they marched to battle, each knight had three or four
horses, and an esquire carried his shield and lance.
The grand master was elected from the class of the knights only. Next in
rank to him was the preceptor, or grand commander, who had the general
supervision of the clergy and serving brethren, and who presided in chapter in
the absence of the grand master. Next to the preceptor came the marshal, who
acted as lieutenant-general in the field of battle under the grand master.
The third dignitary was the grand hospitaler, who had the superintendence of
the hospitals and of all that related to their management. The fourth officer
was the trappier, who supplied the knights with their clothing and
accoutrements. And, lastly, there was the treasurer, who received and paid
all the money that passed through the hands of the order. All these officers
were removable, and were commonly changed every year.
As the order extended, new functionaries were required and were
appointed; namely, provincial masters of the several countries where the order
obtained possessions, who took rank next after the grand master; and there
were also many local officers as particular circumstances required. The grand
master was not absolute, but was obliged to seek the advice of the chapter
before taking any important step, and if he were necessarily absent, he
appointed a lieutenant to act for him, who also governed the order after the
death of the grand master till his successor was elected.
After the death of Saladin disputes arose among his sons, and the
opportunity was seized of commencing a new crusade, the history of which is
well known, and in which the Teutonic Knights took an active part. At this
time (1197) Henry VI, Emperor of Germany, gave the knights the monastery of
the Cistercians, at Palermo, in Sicily, and several privileges and exemptions
- a transaction that caused considerable disagreement between the Pope and the
Emperor. The knights were, however, finally confirmed in possession of the
monastery, and it became the preceptory or chief house of the order in Sicily,
where other property was gradually bestowed upon the knights.
Henry de Walpot, the first grand master, died at Acre, in 1200, and was
succeeded by Otho de Kerpen, who was an octogenarian at the time of his
election, but full of vigor and energy, which he displayed by devoted
attention to the duties of his office, and personal attendance upon the sick
in the hospitals. During the mastership of Otho de Kerpen, an order of
knighthood arose in the north of Europe, which was afterward incorporated with
the Teutonic order. Livonia, a country situated on the borders of the Baltic,
was at this time still pagan. The merchants of Bremen and Lubeck, who had
trading relations with the inhabitants, desired to impart to them the truths
and blessings of Christianity, and took a monk of the name of Menard to teach
them the elements of the faith. The work succeeded, and Menard was
consecrated bishop, and fixed his see at Uxhul, which was afterward
transferred to Riga.
The mission, however, as it advanced, aroused the jealousy and suspicion
of the pagan nobles, and they attacked and destroyed the new town, with its
cathedral and other buildings. The Bishop appealed to his countrymen for
help. Many responded to his call, and, as there was at that time no crusade
in progress in Palestine, the Pope (1199) was persuaded to accord to those who
took up arms for the defence of the Christians in Livonia the same privileges
as were given to those who actually went to the Holy Land.
In consequence of these events a military religious order was founded, to
assist in this war, called the Order of Christ, which was confirmed by Pope
Innocent III, in 1205. The knights wore a white robe, upon which a red sword
and a star were emblazoned. They maintained a vigorous and successful
conflict with the heathen, till circumstances rendered it desirable that they
should be incorporated with the Teutonic Knights.
In the mean time the Latins had seized Constantinople, and set up
Baldwin, Count of Flanders, as emperor, and divided the Eastern Empire among
themselves. The Teutonic Knights received considerable possessions, and a
preceptory was founded in Achaia. Some time afterward another was established
in Armenia, where also the order had obtained property and territory in return
for service rendered in the field. The order also received the distinction of
adding to their bearings the Cross of Jerusalem.
The valor of the knights, however, and the active part which they took in
all the religious wars of the day, cost them dear, and from time to time their
numbers were greatly reduced; so much so that when Herman de Salza was elected
grand master (1210) he found the order so weak that he declared he would
gladly sacrifice one of his eyes if he could thereby be assured that he should
always have ten knights to follow him to battle with the infidels. The vigor
of his administration brought new life to the order, and he was able to carry
on its mission with such success that at his death there were no less than two
thousand German nobles who had assumed the badge of the order and fought under
its banner. Large accessions of property also came at this time to the
knights in Hungary, Prussia, Livonia, and elsewhere.
In 1214 the emperor Frederick I decreed that the grand master should
always be considered a member of the imperial court, that whenever he visited
it he should be lodged at the Emperor's expense, and that two knights should
always have quarters assigned them in the imperial household. In 1221 the
emperor Frederick II, by an imperial act, took the Teutonic order under his
special protection, including all its property and servants; exempted them
from all taxes and dues; and gave its members free use of all pastures,
rivers, and forests in his dominions. And in 1227 Henry commanded that all
proceedings in his courts should be conducted without cost to the order. The
King of Hungary also, seeing the valor of the knights, endeavored to secure
his own possessions by giving them charge of several of his frontier towns.
It would be unnecessary, as it would be tedious, to repeat all the
details of the crusades, the varying successes and defeats, in all of which
the Teutonic Knights took part, both in Syria and in Egypt, fighting side by
side with their brethren in arms, the Templars and Hospitalers. They
continued also their humane services to the sick and wounded, as the following
curious contemporary document shows. It forms part of a charter, obtained by
one Schweder, of Utrecht, who says that, being at the siege of Damietta, "he
saw the wonderful exertions of the brethren of the Teutonic Order, for the
succor of the sick and the care of the soldiers of the army, and was moved to
endow the order with his property in the village of Lankarn."
It was during the siege of Damietta that the famous St. Francis of Assisi
visited the crusading army, and endeavored to settle a dispute that had arisen
between the knights and the foot soldiers of the army, the latter being
dissatisfied and declaring that they were unfairly exposed to danger as
compared with the mounted knights.
In 1226 the grand master was selected by the emperor Frederick and Pope
Honorius to be arbitrator in a dispute that had arisen between them. So well
pleased were they with his honorable and wise counsel that, in recognition of
his services, he and his successors were created princes of the Empire, and
the order was allowed to bear upon its arms the Imperial Eagle. The Emperor
also bestowed a very precious ring upon the master, which was ever afterward
used at the institution of the grand master of the order. Again, in 1230, the
Grand master was one of the principal agents in bringing about a
reconciliation between the Emperor and Pope Gregory IX, whose dissensions had
led to many troubles and calamities.
It has already been mentioned that the King of Hungary bestowed upon the
knights some territory on the borders of his dominions, with a view to their
defending it from the incursions of the barbarous tribes in the vicinity. The
King's anticipations were amply realized. The knights maintained order in the
disturbed districts, and by their presence put an end to the incursions of the
predatory bands who came periodically to waste the country with fire and
sword. The land soon smiled with harvests, and a settled and contented
population lived in peace and quietness.
But no sooner were these happy results attained than the King took a mean
advantage of the knights, and resumed possession of the country which they had
converted from a desert to a fruitful and valuable district. The consequence
was that the wild tribes renewed their invasions, and the reclaimed country
once more lapsed into desolation. Then again the King made the border country
over to the knights, who speedily reasserted their rights, and established a
settled government and general prosperity in the dominion made over to them.
This grant and some others that followed were confirmed to the order by the
bull of Pope Honorius III in 1222.
A few years after this the Duke of Poland asked the aid of the order
against the pagan inhabitants of the country that was afterward Prussia. These
people were very savage and barbarous, and constantly committed horrible
cruelties upon their more civilized neighbors, laying waste the country,
destroying crops, carrying off cattle, burning towns, villages, and convents,
and murdering the inhabitants with circumstances of extreme atrocity, often
burning their captives alive as sacrifices to their gods. The grand master
consulted with his chapter and with the Emperor on the proposed enterprise,
and finally resolved to enter upon it, the Emperor undertaking to secure to
the order any territory that they might be able to conquer and hold in
Prussia. Pope Gregory IX, in 1230, gave his sanction to the expedition, and
conferred on those concerned in it all the privileges accorded to crusaders.
In the following year an army invaded Prussia and erected a fortress at
Thorn, on the Vistula, on the site of a grove of enormous oaks, which the
inhabitants looked upon as sacred to their god Thor. This was followed, in
1232, by the foundation of another stronghold at Culm. A successful campaign
followed, and the castle of Marienwerder, lower down the Vistula, was after
some reverses and delays successfully built and fortified. The grand master
then established a firm system of government over the conquered country, and
drew up laws and regulations for the administration of justice, for the
coining of money, and other necessary elements of civilization. Other
fortified places were built which gradually developed into cities and towns.
But all this was not affected without many battles and much patient endurance,
and frequent defeats and checks.
Nor did the knights forget the spiritual needs of their heathen subjects.
Mission clergy labored among them, and by their instruction, and still more by
their holy, self-denying lives, they succeeded in winning many to forsake
their idols and become Christians.
The order received an important accession to its ranks at this time
(1237) by the incorporation into it of the ancient Order of Christ, in
Livonia, which had considerable possessions. This was followed shortly
afterward by an agreement between the order and the King of Denmark, by which
the former undertook the defence of the kingdom against its pagan neighbors.
In 1234 the order received into its ranks Conrad, Landgrave of Thuringia
and Hesse, a man who had led a wicked and violent life, but, being brought to
see his errors, made an edifying repentance, and became a Teutonic Knight, and
afterward was elected grand master. This Conrad was brother to Louis of
Thuringia, who was the husband of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. After the death
of Elizabeth, the hospital at Marburg, where she had passed the latter years
of her widowhood in the care of the sick, was made over to the Teutonic
Knights, and after her canonization a church was built to receive her remains,
and placed under the care of the order.
In 1240 the knights received an earnest petition from the Duke of Poland,
for aid against the Turks, who were ravaging his dominions, and by the
enormous multitude of their hosts were able to defeat any army he could bring
into the field. The knights accepted the invitation, and took part in a
series of bloody and obstinate battles, in which they lost many of their
number. They had also a new enemy to encounter in the Duke of Pomerania, who
had been their ally, but who now sided with the Prussians against them. In
the war that ensued the Duke was defeated, several of his strongholds were
taken, and he was obliged to sue for peace.
A few years afterward, however (1243), the Duke recommenced hostilities,
and with more success. Culm was besieged by him, and the greatest miseries
were endured by the inhabitants, the slaughter being so great in the numerous
conflicts before the walls that at last very few men remained. The Bishop
even counselled the widows to marry their servants, that the population of the
town might not become extinct. The war was continued for several years with
varying fortune, till a peace was at last concluded, principally through the
mediation of the Duke of Austria.
About this time a disputed election caused a schism in the order, and two
rival grand masters for several years divided the allegiance of the knights,
till Henry de Hohenlohe was recognized by both sides as master. During his
term of office successful war was carried on in Courland and other neighboring
countries, which resulted in the spread of Christianity and the advance of the
power of the order. At the same time, the Teutonic order took part in the
crusades in Palestine, and shared with the Templars and Hospitalers the
successes and reverses there.
It would be tedious to enter upon all the details of the conflicts
undertaken by the order against the Prussians and others; suffice it to say
that the knights, though often defeated, steadily advanced their dominion, and
secured its permanence by the erection of fortresses, the centres about which
cities and towns ultimately arose. Among these were Dantzic, Koenigsberg,
Elbing, Marienberg, and Thorn.
By the year 1283 the order was in possession of all the country between
the Vistula and the Memel, Prussia, Courland, part of Livonia, and Samogitia;
commanderies were established everywhere to hold it in subjection, and
bishoprics and monasteries were founded for the spread of Christianity among
the heathen population. In the contests between the Venetians and the
Genoese, the Teutonic Knights aided the former, and in 1291, after the loss of
Acre, the grand master took up his residence in Venice.
About this time the Pope originated a scheme for the union of the three
orders of the Hospitalers, the Templars, and the Teutonic Knights, into one
great order, purposing at the same time to engage the Emperor and the kings of
Christendom to lay aside all their quarrels, and combine their forces for the
recovery once for all of the Holy Land. Difficulties without number, which
proved insuperable, prevented the realization of this scheme. Among these was
the objection raised by the Teutonic Knights, that while the Hospitalers and
Templars had but one object in view - the recovery of Palestine, their order
had to maintain its conquests in the North of Europe, and to prosecute the
spread of the true faith among the still heathen nations.
In 1309, when all hope of the recovery of the Christian dominion in the
East had been abandoned, and no further crusades seemed probable, it was
determined to remove the seat of the grand master from Venice to Marienberg.
At a chapter of the order held there, further regulations were agreed upon for
the government of the conquered countries, some of which are very curious, but
give an interesting picture of the state of the people and of society at that
period. Thus it was commanded that no Jew, necromancer, or sorcerer should be
allowed to settle in the country. Masters who had slaves, and generally
Prussians, prisoners of war, were obliged to send them to the parish church to
be instructed by the clergy in the Christian religion. German alone was to be
spoken, and the ancient language of the country was forbidden, to prevent the
people hatching conspiracies, and to do away with the old idolatry and heathen
superstitions. Prussians were not allowed to open shops or taverns, nor to
act as surgeons or accoucheurs.
The wages of servants were strictly settled, and no increase or
diminution was permitted. Three marks and a half a year were the wages of a
carpenter or smith, two and a half marks of a coachman, a mark and a half of a
laborer, two marks of a domestic servant, and half a mark of a nurse. Masters
had the right to follow their runaway servants, and to pierce their ears; but
if they dismissed a servant before the end of his term of service, they must
pay him a year's wages. Servants were not allowed to marry during time of
harvest and vintage, under penalty of losing a year's wages and paying a fine
of three marks. No bargains were to be made on Sundays and festivals, and no
shops were to be open on those days till after morning service.
Sumptuary laws of the most stringent nature were passed, some of which
appear very singular. At a marriage or other domestic festival, officers of
justice might offer their guests six measures of beer, tradesmen must not give
more than four, peasants only two. Playing for money, with dice or cards, was
forbidden. Bishops were to visit their dioceses every three years, and to aid
missions to the heathen. Those who gave drink to others must drink of the
same beverage themselves, to avoid the danger of poisoning, as commonly
practised by the heathen Prussians. A new coinage was also issued.
The next half-century was a period of general prosperity and advance for
the order. It was engaged almost incessantly in war, either for the retention
of its conquests or for the acquisition of new territory. There were also
internal difficulties and dissensions, and contests with the bishops. In 1308
the Archbishop of Riga appealed to Pope Clement V, making serious charges
against the order, and endeavoring to prevail upon him to suppress it in the
same way as the Templars had lately been dealt with. Gerard, Count of
Holstein, however, came forward as the defender of the knights. A formal
inquiry was opened before the Pope at Avignon in 1323. The principal charges
brought forward by the Archbishop were, that the order had not fulfilled the
conditions of its sovereignty in defending the Church against its heathen
enemies; that it did not regard excommunications; that it had offered
insolence to the Archbishop, and seized some of the property of his see, and
other similar accusations. The grand master explained some of these matters,
denied others, and produced an autograph letter of the Archbishop's, in which
he secretly endeavored to stir up the Grand Duke of Lithuania to make a
treacherous attack upon some of the fortresses of the knights. The end of the
matter was that the case was dismissed, and there is little doubt that there
were serious faults on both sides.
The times were indeed full of violence, cruelty, and crime. The annals
abound with terrible and shameful records, bloody and desolating wars, and
individual cases of oppression, injustice, and cruelty. Now a grand master is
assassinated in his chapel during vespers; now a judge is proved to have
received bribes, and to have induced a suitor to sacrifice the honor of his
wife as the price of a favorable decision. Wealth and power led to luxury and
sensuality, the weaker were oppressed, noble and bishop alike showing
themselves proud and tyrannical. There are often two contradictory accounts
of the same transaction, and it is impossible to decide where the fault really
was, when there seems so little to choose between the conduct of either side.
The conclusion seems forced upon us that human nature was in those days
much the same as it is now, and that riches and irresponsible authority
scarcely ever fail to lead to pride and to selfish and oppressive treatment of
inferiors. When we gaze upon the magnificent cathedrals that were rising all
over Europe at the bidding of the great of those times, we are filled with
admiration, and disposed to imagine that piety and a high standard of
religious life must have prevailed; but a closer acquaintance with historical
facts dissipates the illusion, and we find that then as now good and evil were
The history of the order for the next century presents little of
interest. In 1388 two of the knights repaired to England by order of the
grand master, to make commercial arrangements with that country, which had
been rendered necessary by the changes introduced into the trade of Europe by
the creation of the Hanseatic League. A second commercial treaty between the
King of England and the order was made in 1409.
The order had now reached the summit of its greatness. Besides large
possessions in Germany, Italy, and other countries, its sovereignty extended
from the Oder to the Gulf of Finland. This country was both wealthy and
populous. Prussia is said to have contained fifty-five large fortified
cities, forty-eight fortresses, and nineteen thousand and eight towns and
villages. The population of the larger cities must have been considerable,
for we are told that in 1352 the plague carried off thirteen thousand persons
in Dantzic, four thousand in Thorn, six thousand at Elbing, and eight thousand
at Koenigsberg. One authority reckons the population of Prussia at this time
at two million one hundred and forty thousand eight hundred. The greater part
of these were German immigrants, since the original inhabitants had either
perished in the war or retired to Lithuania.
Historians who were either members of the order or favorably disposed
toward it, are loud in their praise of the wisdom and generosity of its
government; while others accuse its members and heads of pride, tyranny,
luxury, and cruel exactions.
In 1410 the Teutonic order received a most crushing defeat at Tannenberg
from the King of Poland, assisted by bodies of Russians, Lithuanians, and
Tartars. The grand master, Ulric de Jungingen, was slain, with several
hundred knights and many thousand soldiers.
There is said to have been a chapel built at Gruenwald, in which an
inscription declared that sixty thousand Poles and forty thousand of the army
of the knights were left dead upon the field of battle. The banner of the
order, its treasury, and a multitude of prisoners fell into the hands of the
enemy, who shortly afterward marched against Marienberg and closely besieged
it. Several of the feudatories of the knights sent in their submission to the
King of Poland, who began at once to dismember the dominions of the order and
to assign portions to his followers. But this proved to be premature. The
knights found in Henry de Planau a valiant leader, who defended the city with
such courage and obstinacy that, after fifty-seven days' siege, the enemy
retired, after serious loss from sorties and sickness. A series of battles
followed, and finally a treaty of peace was signed, by which the order gave up
some portion of its territory to Poland.
But a new enemy was on its way to inflict upon the order greater and more
lasting injury than that which the sword could effect. The doctrines of
Wycklif had for some time been spreading throughout Europe, and had lately
received a new impulse from the vigorous efforts of John Huss in Bohemia, who
had eagerly embraced them, and set himself to preach them, with additions of
his own. Several knights accepted the teaching of Huss, and either retired
from the order or were forcibly ejected. Differences and disputes also arose
within the order, which ended in the arrest and deposition of the grand master
in 1413. But the new doctrines had taken deep root, and a large party within
the order were more or less favorable to them, so much so that at the Council
of Constance (1415) a strong party demanded the total suppression of the
Teutonic order. This was overruled; but it probably induced the grand master
to commence a series of persecutions against those in his dominions who
followed the principles of Huss.
The treaty that had followed the defeat at Tannenberg had been almost
from the first disputed by both parties, and for some years appeals were made
to the Pope and the Emperor on several points; but the decisions seldom gave
satisfaction or commanded obedience. The general result was the loss to the
order of some further portions of its dominions.
Another outbreak of the plague, in 1427, inflicted injury upon the order.
In a few weeks no less than eighty-one thousand seven hundred and forty-six
persons perished. There were also about this time certain visions of hermits
and others, which threatened terrible judgments upon the order, because, while
it professed to exist and fight for the honor of God, the defence of the
Church, and the propagation of the faith, it really desired and labored only
for its own aggrandizement.
It was said, too, that it should perish through a goose (oie), and as the
word "Huss" means a goose in Bohemian patois, it was said afterward that the
writings of Huss, or more truly, perhaps, the work of the goose-quill, had
fulfilled the prophecy in undermining and finally subverting the order. There
were also disputes respecting the taxes, which the people declared to be
oppressive, and finally, in 1454, a formidable rebellion took place against
the authority of the knights.
Casimir, King of Poland, who had long had hostile intentions against the
order, secretly threw all his weight into the cause of the malcontents, who
made such way that the grand master was forced to retire to Marienberg, his
capital, where he was soon closely besieged. Casimir now openly declared war,
and laid claim to the dominions of the knights in Prussia and Pomerania,
formally annexing them to the kingdom of Poland.
The grand master sent petitions for aid to the neighboring princes, but
without success. The kings of Denmark and Sweden excused themselves on
account of the distance of their dominions from the seat of war. Ladislaus,
King of Bohemia and Hungary, was about to marry his sister to Casimir, and the
religious dissensions of Bohemia and the attacks of the Turks upon Hungary
fully occupied his attention and demanded the employment of all his troops and
treasure; and finally the capture of Constantinople by Mahomet at this very
time (1458) seemed to paralyze the energies of the European powers.
The grand master, Louis d'Erlichshausen, thus found himself deserted in
his time of need. He did what he could by raising a considerable body of
mercenaries, and with these, his knights, and the regular troops of the order,
he defended himself with courage and wonderful endurance, so that he not only
succeeded in holding the city, but recovered several other towns that had
But his resources were unequal to the demands made upon them, his enemy
overwhelmed him with numbers, his own soldiers clamored for their pay long
overdue, and there was no prospect of aid from without. There was nothing
left, therefore, to him but to make the best terms he could. He adopted the
somewhat singular plan of making over Marienberg and what remained of the
dominions of the order to the chiefs who had given him aid, in payment for
their services, and he himself, with his knights and troops, retired to
Koenigsberg, which then became the capital of the order. Marienberg soon
afterward came into the hands of Casimir; but the knights again captured it,
and again lost it, 1460.
War continued year after year between Poland and the knights, the general
result of which was that the latter were defeated and lost one town after
another, till, in 1466, a peace was concluded, by the terms of which the
knights ceded to Poland almost all the western part of their dominions,
retaining only a part of Eastern Prussia, with Koenigsberg for their capital,
the grand master acknowledging himself the vassal of the King of Poland, with
the title of Prince and Councillor of the kingdom.
In 1497 the order lost its possessions in Sicily through the influence of
the Pope and the King of Aragon, who combined to deprive it of them. It still
retained a house at Venice, and some other property in Lombardy. In 1511
Albert de Brandenberg was elected grand master. He made strenuous efforts to
procure the independence of the order, and solicited the aid of the Emperor to
free it from the authority of Poland, but without success. The grand master
refused the customary homage to the King of Poland, and, after fruitless
negotiations, war was once more declared, which continued till 1521, when
peace was concluded; one of the results of which was the separation of Livonia
from the dominion of the order, and its erection into an independent state.
All this time the doctrines of Luther had been making progress and
spreading among all classes in Prussia and Germany. In 1522 the grand master
went to Nuremberg to consult with the Lutherans there, and shortly afterward
he visited Luther himself at Wittenberg. Luther's advice was decided and
trenchant. He poured contempt upon the rules of the order, and advised Albert
to break away from it and marry. Melancthon supported Luther's counsels.
Shortly after, Luther wrote a vigorous letter to the knights of the order, in
which he maintained that it was of no use to God or man. He urged all the
members to break their vow of celibacy and to marry, saying that it was
impossible for human nature to be chaste in any other way, and that God's law,
which commanded man to increase and multiply, was older than the decrees of
councils and the vows of religious orders. At the request of the grand master
he also sent missionaries into Prussia to preach the reformed doctrines. One
or two bishops and many of the clergy accepted them, and they spread rapidly
among the people. Services began to be said in the vulgar tongue, and images
and other ornaments were pulled down in the churches, especially in the
In 1525 Albert met the King of Poland at Cracow, and formally resigned
his office as grand master of the Teutonic order, making over his dominions to
the King, and receiving from him in return the title of hereditary Duke of
Prussia. Shortly afterward he followed Luther's advice, and married the
princess Dorothea of Denmark. Many of the knights followed his example. The
annals and archives of the order were transferred to the custody of the King
of Poland, and were lost or destroyed during the troubles that subsequently
came upon that kingdom.
A considerable number of the knights refused to change their religion and
abandon their order, and in 1527 assembled in chapter at Mergentheim to
consult as to their plans for the future. They elected Walter de Cronberg
grand master, whose appointment was ratified by the Emperor, Charles V. In
the religious wars that followed, the knights fought on the side of the
Emperor, against the Protestants. In 1595 the commandery of Venice was sold
to the Patriarch and was converted into a diocesan seminary; and in 1637 the
commandery of Utrecht was lost to the order. In 1631 Mergentheim was taken by
the Swedes under General Horn.
In the war against the Turks during this period some of the knights, true
to the ancient principles of their order, took part on the Christian side,
both in Hungary and in the Mediterranean. In the wars of Louis XIV, the order
lost many of its remaining commanderies, and by an edict of the King, in 1672,
the separate existence of the order was abolished in his dominions, and its
possessions were conferred on the Order of St. Lazarus.
When Prussia was erected into a kingdom, in 1701, the order issued a
solemn protest against the act, asserting its ancient rights over that
country. The order maintained its existence in an enfeebled condition till
1809, when it was formally abolished by Napoleon. In 1840 Austria instituted
an honorary order called by the same name, and in 1852 Prussia revived it
under the designation of the Order of St. John.