July 15, 1410: King Jagiello of Poland defeats the Teutonic Knights at Grunewald

When the Declaration of Independence was read in New York in 1776, the statue of King George III at Bowling Green was hauled off its pedestal and melted down for bullets. Since then we have not been prone to erecting statues of monarchs, although a couple are unobtrusively placed on the U.S. Customs House cornice at Bowling Green and the recently cleaned Appellate Court at Madison and 25th St. But why do we have a ferocious-looking, over life-size crowned monarch on a horse scowling across Turtle Pond?

The story begins in the 12th century, when the Teutonic Knights were founded to care for German soldiers wounded on the Crusades in the Holy Land. When no crusades were under way, their assignment was to fight pagans in Eastern Europe. Eventually granted extensive lands in Hungary, Prussia, Livonia and Italy, the Knights became wealthy and influential, even arbitrating disputes between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. (They remind me vividly of the Knights Templars as portrayed in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.) In time, the Knights lusted for more and more land, whether or not it was occupied by pagans.

Lithuania was the only pagan country left in Europe when its Grand Duke Jagiello married Jagwiga, Queen of Poland, in 1386, and converted to Christianity. In a series of mass baptisms, Lithuanians followed suit. This should have put Lithuania off-limits to the Teutonic Knights, but in 1398 they nevertheless invaded and occupied part of it.

By 1410 Jagiello and his ally Vytautas had assembled some 50,000 men to take the field against the Knights. Before dawn on July 15, their forces were lined up near Tannenberg. The Knights and their allies (32,000 or so) were arrayed near the town of Grunewald.

But Jagiello refused to attack early in the day, instead letting the Knights sit for hours in the sun, broiling in their heavy plate armor, while his own forces rested in the coolness of the forest. After a few hours, emissaries from the Grand Master of the Knights approached Jagiello and threw two swords at his feet. "Lithuanians and Poles, Dukes Vytautas and Jagiello, if you are afraid to come out and fight, our Grand Master sends you these additional weapons." Brandishing the swords above his head, Jagiello replied, "I accept both your swords and your choice of battleground, but the outcome of this day I entrust to the will of God."

At mid-morning the battle finally began. By sunset the grand master, several hundred knights, and thousands of those fighting for the Knights lay dead. Grunewald marked the beginning of the Knights’ decline: during the next 150 years their possessions in Germany and Eastern Europe were gradually taken over by secular rulers, and one more vestige of the Middle Ages disappeared.

Further Reading