Carlsberg Foundation 14: Unexpected allies? Negotiations on an alliance against Novgorod between Christopher of Bavaria and the Teutonic Order in Livonia

By Mihkel Mäesalu and Stefan Pajung

In the Autumn of 1443, the Teutonic knights in Livonia launched an attack on their eastern neighbour, the Russian principality of Novgorod. The charge was led by the young lord Gerhard von Kleve, count of Mark in Westphalia, whose interpreter had been murdered in 1438 when he was travelling through Novgorod’s territory. The young lord considered this murder as a violation of his honour and sought to avenge the deed in battle. He managed to convince the Teutonic Knights in Livonia to start a war with Novgorod just so he could restore his honour with a charge against Novgorod. This ’chivalrous deed’ started a five-year long war, which ended in a stalemate in 1448.

Novgorod had rather strained relations with the Kingdom of Sweden, largely due to border disputes in Karelia and Ingermanland. According to the maxim – the enemy of my enemy is my friend – Christopher of Bavaria, king of Denmark (1440–1448), Sweden (1440–1448) and Norway (1442–1448) seemed an obvious ally for the Teutonic Order.

North- and East-Central-Europe in the 15th Century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though our previous blog-posts have focused on the demands of the Danish kings for the return of the Duchy of Estonia to their rule, this did not mean that the kings were always in strained relations with the Teutonic Order. Quite the opposite, starting from the year 1423 the Danish kings had had quite close relations with the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order.

So, when king Christopher visited Sweden in 1444, he was approached by the envoys of the Master of the Teutonic Knights in Livonia. The envoys requested Christopher to place an embargo on all trade with Novgorod, which the king agreed to do. Furthermore, the envoys asked the king not to prolong his truce with Novgorod, to which the king answered, that he had to look into the matter before making a definitive decision. This embassy led to further negotiations between the king and the Teutonic Order. Christopher asked the Livonian Master to send his embassy to Stockholm for Saint John’s Day (24 June) 1446, where Christopher was to negotiate the prolonging of his truce with the envoys of Novgorod. This second embassy resulted in a preliminary alliance agreement between Christopher and the Teutonic Knights in Livonia. There was to be a coordinated Scandinavian-Livonian attack on Novgorod in June 1447.

But the alliance agreement was never ratified, and the Kalmar Union did not enter into a war with Novgorod. How did this happen? The Teutonic Knights in Livonia were clearly interested in an alliance with Christopher, for they did not have any other allies against Novgorod. So, it must have been Christopher, who changed his mind and decided not to ratify the preliminary alliance agreement.

A contemporary drawing of Christopher of Bavaria by an unknown author
Source: Wikipedia

King Christopher had in fact hoped to also draw the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order into this alliance. As our followers surely know by now, the Grand Master was the head of the whole Teutonic Order and administrated directly the Order’s lands in Prussia. The Grand Master played a significant part in mediating communication between his subordinate, the Livonian Master and the Danish king. Therefore, king Christopher had reasons to expect, that an alliance with the Teutonic Order would involve both the Grand Master as well as his subordinate, the Livonian Master.

But, the Grand Master did not want to take any part in this alliance, though he reluctantly allowed the Livonian Master to enter into such an agreement with Christopher. What interest could Christopher have with an alliance with the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who ruled over Prussia? And why did the Grand Master decline?

King Christopher’s main political concerns were not with Livonia or Novgorod. His biggest problem lay with the deposed king of the Nordic kingdoms – Eric of Pomerania, who had retreated to the island of Gotland and refused to acknowledge his loss of the crowns of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Eric had resorted to waging guerrilla warfare against Christopher on the Baltic Sea – in other words he was supporting pirates attacking ships headed to the Nordic Kingdoms. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order engaged in attempts of finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict between Christopher and Eric, which was seriously disturbing the commerce of the Hanseatic merchants of Prussian and Livonian towns.

The Livonian Master’s need for an ally against Novgorod gave Christopher the idea, that if he could make such an alliance with the Teutonic Order, which involved the Grand Master, then the tide would turn in his favour in the Gotland question. Christopher may have hoped that if he was in an alliance with the Grand Master, he may have enough political leverage to force Eric to leave Gotland and renounce his claims for the Nordic kingdoms. The Grand Master on the other hand was cautious. He did not want the political situation around Eric to escalate any further. He preferred to stay neutral in the conflict between Eric and Christopher. So, when Christopher saw that he could not persuade the Grand Master to enter into an alliance with him, he no longer saw any political advantages in an alliance with the Teutonic Order in Livonia. That may be the reason why Christopher’s alliance with the Teutonic Order in Livonia was never ratified.