Wendenkreuzzug: The Wendish Crusade of 1147


Bishop Absalon topples the god Svantevit at Arkona
Laurits Tuxen (1853–1927)

Between 1140 and 1143 some dozen noble Saxon families from the county of Holstein began a process of subjugation of the neighbouring Wends as they pushed into Wagria, establishing themselves as landowners, replacing the Wendish Chiefs, and building forts and halls. Their count, Adolf II and his rival, Henry of Badewide, pushed further east into the lands of the Polabians, seizing Lübeck and Ratzeburg. Colonists followed the soldiers, and with them mission-priests to convert and tithe the Slavs. The missionary Vizelin who had been proselytizing in the area for fifteen years was set up as bishop at Oldenburg, and later at Lübeck. This breaking up of traditional Slav patterns of society and authority was a departure from the practice of the previous centuries during which German conquerors had been content with levying tribute and military service from subject populations. By 1145 Nyklot, the Wendish knes, had permanently lost his western provinces, and to the south the Saxon Margrave Albrecht der Bär had extended his rule to the Slavs of the old Nordmark.

This land grabbing was given further impetus following the fall of Edessa to the Turkish atabeg Imad ad-Din Zengi in 1144. Pope Eugenius III proclaimed a crusade to save the Holy Land, ably supported by St Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1147 while attending a Reichstag at Frankfurt he found the Saxon nobles calling for permission to attack the pagan Slavs on their eastern frontier. In response Eugenius issued the Bull Divinia dispentatione authorizing the Christians of Northern Europe to make war on the heathen under the papal legate Anselm of Havelburg. Bernard, as single-minded and immoderate as ever, urged the Northern crusaders to fight the heathen ‘until such a time as, by God’s help, they shall either be converted or deleted’.

The preaching of a crusade added a new dimension to relations between the Christian peoples of the North and their Slav neighbours. Interactions between these peoples revolved around trade and were marked by constant raiding on all sides. Occasionally territorial control had shifted back and forth as lords and kings extended their authority beyond ill defined borders and demanded tribute and recognition of their overlordship. Though Christianity had been prosecuted by the Danes and Saxons during their frequent wars with the Slavs it had been a by-product rather than a primary cause for taking military action. This had been the spirit in which the Saxons had demanded to be let loose on their neighbours. They wanted submission, tribute, loot or land. The Danes wanted revenge for the predations of Wendish pirates and slavers. The Poles saw it as an opportunity to intimidate the Prussians. For the Christian rulers conversion of the pagans was very much a secondary issue in the 1140’s.

Matters were brought to a head in June 1147 when Nyklot struck first, invading Wagria, devastating the settlements, regaining control of the lands he had lost to the Saxons, and fortifying a remote outpost at Dobin in the marshlands of Mecklenberg. In response the rival claimants to the Danish throne, Knud V and Svend III, temporarily settled their differences and with Archbishop Adalbero of Bremen and Duke Heinrich der Löwe attacked Dobin in a pincer movement. Another army kept watch over the Danish fleet in Wismar Bay. Nyklot persuaded the Rugians to attack the fleet by sea, while a sally from Dobin severely mauled the army of the Danes in a position where they were cut off by the lake from Saxon aid. Knud and Svend returned to Denmark and Duke Heinrich and Adalbero continued the siege until the garrison agreed to accept baptism, and then withdrew. In response to calls from some crusaders to lay waste the countryside to force a surrender the Saxon knights responded, “Is not the land we are devastating our land, and the people we are fighting for our people?” Good Christians they may have been, but not at the expense of profit and power. Land, status and taxes trumped the saving of souls.

Meanwhile a Saxon army under Anselm of Havelburg marched east to the Liutzian stronghold of Demmin and burned the pagan temple at Malchow. Under the instigation of the margraves Conrad and Albrecht der Bär they diverted to Stettin, where crosses appeared on the walls of the already Christian city. Its duke, Racibor I, and the bishop of Wolin, Adalbert, parleyed with the crusaders who withdrew and returned home.

Viewed as a crusading effort the first Northern crusade was a failure. St Bernard and the clergy of the Slav missions had wished to make the permanent conversion of the Wends the main effort of the campaign, and this they failed to do, largely due to the expectation of other gains by the princes and warriors who carried out the campaign. The contemporary chronicler, Helmold of Bosau, was clear that profit was the driving motive behind Saxon incursions into Wendish territory when he wrote that, “no mention has been made of Christianity, but only of money,” in reference to the Slav wars of Heinrich der Löwe prior to 1167. The wars, Helmold argued, were carried out in accordance with the ‘selfish’ aims of the dukes, not to extend the Church. Our other main contemporary chronicler, Saxo Grammaticus, saw desire for retaliation against the piratical predations of the Wends, and imperialism as the root cause of Danish participation in the war on the Wends.

If the 1147 campaign was a failure as a crusade it was more successful in the context of warfare between the Saxons, Danes, and Wends at the time. Though undefeated, Nyklot became a tributary and ally of the Saxons who had confirmed their occupation of Wagria and Polabia. Slaves were freed, loot acquired, a pagan temple had been destroyed, and only one serious defeat had been suffered when the Danes were attacked at Dobin. In 1148 the Pomeranian duke, Racibor I, affirmed his Christianity in a public display in Germany. By the standards of the time this was a successful summer of campaigning.

Waging war was no easy business. Warfare was limited by the natural obstacles of the landscape and the seasons. The plateaux of the Mecklenberg and Masurian lakes and the bogs of Pomerania were a maze of lakes, marshes, and bogs that made any travel difficult. Saxo Grammaticus described the difficulties of such terrain near Demmin in 1171 as the Danes attempted to cross the ‘wide, obstructive, and filthy marsh’:

Its surface was covered by a thin layer of turf, and, while it could support grass, it was so soft underfoot that it swallowed up those who trod there. Sinking deep into the slime, they went down into the muddy depths of a foul morass … And when the horses got bogged down too deeply, they hauled them out, and when the men sank as they led them along, they themselves kept upright by holding on to their manes … and while the horses were pulling themselves out of the hollows into which they sank, now and then they crushed under their hooves one of the men who were leading them. The king himself, who had thrown off everything except the shirt next to his body, and was carried on the shoulders of two knights, hardly managed to escape from the soft mud. Seldom has Danish valour sweated more.[1]

Adding to the difficulties were the problems of transport and supply in terrain for which passage by sufficient numbers of vehicles and draught animals to support a large army was nigh impossible. Campaigning was largely carried out in summer and winter and took place outside the harvest. Summer campaigns were usually carried out by sea as the land conditions were at their worst at that time. In winter overland campaigns were more feasible as rivers, lakes, and marshes froze, allowing for easier transit. In general campaigns were short with limited aims simply because of the difficulties of maintaining a large army in the field.

After the 1147 crusade the war against the Wends was carried out without papal authorization until 1171, when Pope Alexander III issued the Bull Non parum animus noster which placed war against the Estonians and Finns on the same footing as crusades to the Holy Land. Those who fought and lived received one year’s remission of confessed sins for which penance had been performed. Those who died in the cause were granted remission of all their sins if penance had been carried out while alive. Between 1147 and 1171 the Danes and the Saxons under Valdemar I and Heinrich der Löwe had been active against the Wends carrying out joint campaigns in 1160, during which Nyklot was killed and idols at Mecklenburg and Rostock were destroyed, and in 1164, with mixed results. In 1168-9 Valdemar conquered the Rugians, seizing their capital at Arkona, destroying their temples, and making their prince his tributary.

The latter half of the Twelfth Century also saw advances against paganism as northern rulers came to appreciate the value of conversion to their aims. Baptized communities generated income in the form of tithes of silver and grain. Abbeys and churches paid taxes and provided hospitality to their patrons. And conquered and converted lands opened the way for settlers who contributed to princely coffers with rent and taxes. Control of the Wendish lands further led to a reduction of the slave-trading and raiding that had afflicted the western Baltic coastline, allowing for the development of new settlements along the coast now the threat had receded. The former Wendish settlements at Wismar (Vishemir), Rostock (Roztoc), and Stralsund (Stralow), and the town that had developed around the Cistercian monastery at Greifswald were founded as towns under the Lübeck Law in the Thirteenth Century.

The downfall of Heinrich der Löwe in 1181 left the field open for the Danes who received the Pomeranian and Abotrite Wends as vassals, along with the Saxon counties of Holstein and Ratzeburg. Danish victory over the Liutzian-Pomeranian fleet at the Greifswalder Bodden in 1184 broke Wendish control over their littoral and the Pomeranian duke, Bogislaw I, submitted to Knud VI as his vassal in 1185. This success saw an effective end to the Wendish wars in the west Baltic. The following century would see the east Baltic Lvivs, Letts, Estonians, Prussians, and Finns experience defeat, occupation, dispossession, and baptism by Germans, Danes, and Swedes as the crusading banner was carried further into the pagan world of the north.


[1] Saxo Grammaticus, Saxoni Gesta Danorum, ed. J. Olrik and H Ræder (Copenhagen, 1931), 464-5.

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This entry was posted on March 22, 2014 by in Denmark, Germany, History, Medieval, War and tagged , , .

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