On July 15, 1410, one of the most important battles took in the later middle ages. Fought between Tannenberg and the nearby village of Grünwald, Polish and Lithuanian forces under Ladislaus II (Wladyslaw Jagiello) halted the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Knights. For a detailed description of this battle, please see http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/matthaywood/. This account of the battle was written sixty years afterwards, by Jan Dlugosz, who served as the secretary to the Bishop of Cracow.
The Grand Master sends the king two swords. Wladyslaw Jagiello gives the signal to battle (1410)
Mikolaj, the deputy chancellor of the Polish Kingdom, having received the royal order, went to the supply columns, and the king intended to put on his helmet and march off to battle. Suddenly, two heralds were announced, led under the protection of Polish knights in order to avoid an act of aggression. One of them, from the Roman king, had a black eagle on a gold field in his coat of arms, and the other, from the Szczecin duke, had a red griffin on a white field. They came out of the enemy’s army carrying unsheathed swords in their hands, demanding to be brought into the king’s presence. The Prussian Master Ulryk sent them to King Wladyslaw, adding also an arrogant order to rouse the king to commence the battle without delay and to stand in ranks to fight. The Polish King Wladyslaw, having seen them and being convinced, as it indeed turned out, that they were coming with some new unusual deputation, ordered to call back Mikolaj, the deputy chancellor, and he listened to the deputation of the heralds in his presence and the presence of some lords who were ordered to guard the king’s safety, namely: Siemowit, a younger Mazovian duke; his royal nephew, Jan Mezyk of Dabrowa; Czech Solawa, secretary Zbigniew Olesnicki; Dobieslaw Kobyla, Wolczek Rokuta, kitchen master Boguchwal and Zbigniew Czajka from Nowy Dwor, who carried the royal spear; Mikolaj Morawiec, who carried a small pennant; and Danilko from Ruthenia, who held the royal arrows – because Aleksander, the grand duke of Lithuania, could not be called on account of the hasty preparations for battle and the difficult duty of drawing up his ranks. And they, having somehow saluted the king, presented the contents of their deputation in German (Jan Mezyk served as interpreter) in the following words:
“Your Majesty! The Grand Master Ulryk sends you and your brother (omitting the name of Aleksander and the title of duke) through us, the deputies standing here, two swords for help so that you, with him and his army, may delay less and may fight more boldly than you have shown, and also that you will not continue hiding and staying in the forest and groves, and will not postpone the battle. And if you believe that you have too little space to form your ranks, the Prussian Master Ulryk, to entice you to battle, will withdraw from the plain which he took for his army, as far as you want, or you may instead choose any field of battle so that you do not postpone the battle any longer”.
So much from the heralds. And it was noticed that during the deputies’ speech the Teutonic army, confirming the statement conveyed by the heralds, withdrew to a much vaster field to give proof by deed of the truthfulness of the secret orders given to the heralds.
It was indeed a foolish statement and did not befit their rule. They did it as if they were convinced that fate and the destiny of each of them on that day depended on their plans and was in their power. And King Wladyslaw, having listened to the boastful and impudent words of the Teutonic deputies, accepted the swords from their hands, and without any anger or resentment, but with tears, responded without hesitation to the heralds, with strange humility, patience and modesty. “Even though”, he said, “I do not need the swords of my enemies, as I have in my army a sufficient amount, however, in the name of God, for securing greater help, protection and defense in my just cause, I accept these two swords brought by you and sent by the enemies who desire my blood and my destruction as well as that of my army. I will turn to Him as to the most just avenger of pride, which is unbearable, to His Mother, the Virgin Mary, and to my patrons and those of my Kingdom: Stanislaw, Adalbert, Waclaw, Florian, and Jadwiga, and I will ask them to turn their anger against the enemies, the proud as well as the wicked, who cannot be appeased and led to peace by any just manner, by any modesty, by any of my requests, if they do not spill blood, do not tear out entrails and do not break necks. Placing my trust in the most sure defense of God and His saints, and in their steadfast help, I am sure that they will shield me and my people with their might and intercession and will not allow me and my people to succumb to the violence of such horrible enemies with whom I strove for peace so many times. I would not be reluctant to conclude it even at this moment, if only it could be done according to just conditions. I would withdraw the hand extended to battle even now, although I see that heaven most clearly foretells my victory in battle by the swords you have brought me. I do not at all claim the choice of a battlefield, but, as becomes a Christian and a Christian king, I leave it to God, wishing to have whatever place of battle and whatever outcome of the war that God’s mercy and fate will determine for me today, hopeful that the heavens will put an end to the Teutonic relentlessness so that as a result, their wicked and unbearable pride will be defeated once and for all. For I am sure that heaven will support a more valid cause. On the field we tread, on which the battle will be waged, Mars, the mutual and just judge of war, will erase and humiliate the impudence of my enemies, which reaches to the skies”. The two aforemen–tioned swords, sent out of pride by the Teutonic Knights to the Polish king, are kept to this day in the royal treasury in Cracow to remind us of and bear witness to the pride and defeat of the one side and the humility and triumph of the other.
The first encounter
When the reveilles began to sound, the whole Polish army sang with loud voices the native song ‘Mother of God’ and then, lifting spears, they threw themselves into battle. The first, however, who went to battle were the Lithuanian army, commanded by Duke Aleksander, who did not tolerate any delay. Mikolaj, the deputy chancellor of the Polish Kingdom, who intended to go with chaplains and scribes to the royal camps, had already disappeared out of the king’s eyesight in a torrent of tears, when one of the scribes prompted him to stop for a moment and wait for the clash of these powerful armies, because it was indeed a rare sight that would never be seen again. He, agreeing, turned his eyes and face to the fighting ranks. And it was just at that moment that the two units clashed in the middle of the valley that separated the armies, and both sides raised a cry, as soldiers usually do before a battle. The Teutonic Knights tried in vain to hit and confuse the Polish units with a double shot from the cannons, even though the Prussian army ran to battle with a louder cry, greater speed and from a higher elevation. In the place where the encounter occurred, there were six high oak trees on whose trunks and branches many people climbed and sat – it was not dear if they were from the royal or Teutonic army – to watch from above the first encounter of the units and the fate of both armies. Because during the attack of the armies, breaking spears and armor hitting against each other produced such a great clatter and bang, and the clang of swords resounded so loudly, as if some huge rock had collapsed, that even those who were several miles away could hear it. Then knight attacked knight, armor crushed under the pressure of armor, and swords hit faces. And when the ranks dosed, it was impossible to tell the coward from the brave, the bold from the slow, because all of them were pressed together, as if in some tangle. They changed places or advanced only when the victor took the place of the defeated by throwing down or killing the enemy. When at last they broke the spears, all the units and armor clung together so tightly that, pushed by the horses and crowded, they fought only with swords and axes slightly, extended on their handles, and they made a noise in that fighting that only the blows of hammers can raise in a forge. And among the knights fighting hand to hand only with swords, one could observe examples of great courage.
Wladyslaw Jagiello in danger
After the Lithuanian army was driven away, a light, mild rain sent up a powerful swirl of dust that covered the battlefield and fighters, and a fierce battle broke out again between the Polish and Prussian armies in many areas. As the Teutonic Knights were striving hard for victory, the big standard of the Polish King Wladyslaw with the white eagle in the coat of arms, carried by the Cracow standard-bearer, the knight Marcin of Wrocimowice of the Polkozic clan, fell to the ground under the enemy’s pressure. But the knights fighting under it, the most battle-seasoned knights and veterans, raised it immediately and put it in its place, not allowing its destruction. It would not have been possible to raise if it had not been for the outstanding unit of the bravest knights, who defended it with their own bodies and arms. And the Polish knights, trying to erase the infamous insult, attacked the enemy in the most furious way, and routed them completely, cutting down all these forces that dashed with them.
Meanwhile, the Teutonic army, which made chase after the fleeing Lithuanians and Ruthenians, considering themselves victorious, was heading to the Prussian camp, leading a crowd of captives. Seeing, however, that a very fierce and bloody battle was taking place, they abandoned the captives and spoils, and threw themselves into the vortex of the battle to help their own, who at that moment were fighting with less intensity. Thanks to the help of the new fighting men, the battle between the two armies grew more fierce. And when on both sides a lot of men fell down and the Teutonic army suffered heavy losses, when confusion began in its units, when its leaders perished, it was expected that the Teutonic army would be inclined to run away. But thanks to the persistence of the Teutonic Knights and the Order as well of the Czech and German knights, the battle which was weakening in many places was renewed.
During the fierce battle between the two armies, the Polish King Wladyslaw stood nearby observing the courage of the fighters, and having put his trust in God’s mercy, he confidently expected the retreat and final rout of the enemies, whom he saw shattered and defeated in many places. Meanwhile, sixteen new, untouched, not yet battle-scarred regiments of the enemy entered into battle under their standards. When their ranks turned toward the Polish king, standing only with his bodyguard, it seemed that they aimed at him with their outstretched spears. And the king, convinced that the enemy’s army threatened his life, especially because of a small number of knights surrounding him, and fearing mortal danger, sent his secretary, Zbigniew of Olesnica, to the regiment of his courtiers fighting nearby, with the order to come quickly to his rescue, to protect their king from the mortal danger he would face if help did not come at once. This regiment was dose enough to engage the hostile forces. But a king’s knight, Mikolaj Kielbasa of the Nalecz clan, one of those fighting in the first rank, aimed his sword at secretary Zbigniew, the king’s messenger, scolding him loudly and ordering him to leave: “Poor wretch”, he said, “don’t you see that the enemies are attacking us? And you compel us to abandon the battle, just about to begin, and go to defend the king? Wouldn’t it be like escaping from the ranks, turning tail to the enemy, and endangering both ourselves and the king if our forces broke down?” Zbigniew of Olesnica, chased away by these harsh words, with–drew from the court regiment which surrounded him, and the king’s men at once engaged their enemies, and fighting very fiercely they crushed and smashed the enemies. After returning to the king, Zbigniew of Olesnica reported that all the knights were engaged in battle and added that the knights, fighting or waiting for the battle, would not be persuaded to do anything, nor would they follow any order. Zbigniew reported to the king that he could not convince any units involved in the battle, since they would not listen to arguments or orders on account of the noise and confusion.
A small royal standard carried behind the king, with the white eagle on the red field as the coat of aims, was farsightedly removed so as not to betray that the king was there. It was hidden on the order of the king’s bodyguard, and the surrounding knights shielded the king with their horses and bodies so that nobody would guess that he stood there. The king was eager to fight and, setting spurs to his horse, he attempted to cut into the tightest ranks of the enemies. The bodyguard restrained him with great effort, barring his way. The king lightly struck one of his bodyguards, Czech Solawa, with the tip of his spear, when Solawa firmly grabbed his horse’s bridle, so that the king could not advance, and he had to ask him to let go so that he could fight. He finally withdrew, prevented by the firm and decisive command of the bodyguard, who declared that they would rather expose themselves to the worst danger than permit him to fight.
Meanwhile, a knight of German origin, Dypold Kokeritz of Ecber in Lusatia, ran out of the Prussian army on a red horse, dressed in a white coat, called in Polish a jakka, with a gold belt, and in full armor. He ran from the ranks of a bigger Prussian regiment, one among the sixteen regiments, to the place where the king stood, and waving his spear in full view of the Prussian army standing under sixteen standards, he intended, it seemed, to attack the king. When the Polish King Wladyslaw attempted to fight with him, waving his own spear, Zbigniew of Olesnica, the king’s secretary, clashed with him, shielding the king from the blow, with a spear broken in half. He struck the German on the side and knocked him from his horse to the ground. With his spear, King Wladyslaw struck the knight, who lay on his back on the ground in convulsions, hitting him in the forehead, which was bare as his visor had opened, but left him intact. But the knights keeping guard over the king killed him immediately, and the foot soldiers pulled off his armor and clothes.
Did anyone manage to achieve anything more successful in this battle? Indeed there was nothing more brave and bold than the deed of Zbigniew. This man, without armor or arms, dared to fare an excellently armed knight in battle; a youth, virtually a boy, entered into battle with a mature man and veteran. With a spear broken in half he knocked away a very long spear of the enemy and, hurling an implacable enemy down from his horse, he eliminated the imminent danger hanging not only over the king but also over the whole army, if the king had fallen down and died. And when the Polish King Wladyslaw, listening to his bodyguard’s words of praise in which they profusely extolled his courage, wanted to give him the knight’s belt as a sign of favor and to reward his exceptionally praiseworthy deed, the noble youth did not agree to this laudable favor from the king, but when the king tried persistently to confer on him the rank of knight, he responded that he should be enlisted not in the secular army, but in the spiritual one and that he would prefer to fight always for Christ rather than for an earthly and mortal king. Then King Wladyslaw said: “Since you choose a better fate, if I win, to reward your deed, I will not fail to elevate you to the rank of bishop”. From that time on, the king began to bestow on the aforementioned Zbigniew greater affection. Favored in everybody’s presence with special consideration, he was in time to become the bishop of Cracow, thanks to the king’s support. Pope Martin V granted him dispensation from the stigma he drew upon himself with this extraordinary deed.
The Teutonic army suffers defeat
It was from one of sixteen regiments of the Teutonic army that Kokeritz, a knight from Meissen, attempted to attack the king and died because of this thoughtless rather than brave deed. Seeing that the aforementioned knight Kokeritz was slain, the army began to withdraw at once, having been given a signal by a Teutonic Knight, a regiment commander, who was sitting on a white horse, giving to the knights in the first rank a signal to retreat with his spear and shouting in German: ‘Herum, herum’. After turning back, the army moved towards the right side, where the bigger royal regiment was standing, which returned with some other royal regiments after finishing the slaughter of the enemy. The majority of the king’s knights, having noticed the army positioned under sixteen standards, took them for the enemy’s army, as was the case. The rest, succumbing to human weakness, prone to expect something better, maintained that it was the Lithuanian army because of the big number of light spears, called sulice; and did not attack them immediately, held back by uncertainty and disputes that arose among them. To put a stop to these disputes, Knight Dobieslaw of Olesnica,. from the clan called Debno, with a cross in their coat of arms, set spurs to his horse and charged alone, with a raised spear, toward the enemy. A Teutonic knight, a commander of the regiment and units, ran out from the Prussian cavalry toward him and cutting off the attacking Dobieslaw, with skillful motions of his lance pushed Dobieslaw’s outstretched spear over his head and in the first moment avoided his blow. And Dobieslaw, seeing clearly that his blow had missed, and recognizing that it was risky and unwise to fight against the whole unit, returned quickly to his people. The Teutonic knight, who began to chase him, setting his spurs to his horse and aiming threateningly at Dobieslaw with his spear, struck only Dobieslaw’s horse across the covering called a caparison, and wounded its loins, but not mortally, and quickly returned to his ranks, to avoid being captured by Polish knights.
And the Polish units, abandoning a hesitation which delayed them, threw themselves with many regiments at the enemy, who were positioned in sixteen regiments, in which found refuge also those who had suffered defeat under other banners, and the Poles waged a mortal battle against them. And although the enemies put up a resistance for some time, ultimately, surrounded by great numbers of the king’s army, they were put to the sword and virtually all units fighting in the sixteen regiments either perished of were taken prisoner. After defeating and crushing the enemy’s army, during which – as it is known – Grand Master Ulryk, marechals, commanders and all the more prominent knights and lords of the Prussian army perished, the remaining crowd of enemies beat a retreat and once they turned tail they began to run away with determination.
And the Polish king won a delayed and difficult victory, but one that was nonetheless full and decisive over the Grand Master and the Teutonic Order. It was then that the knight Jerzy Gersdorff, who carried the banner of Saint George in the Teutonic army and who preferred to be taken prisoner than to shamefully run away, stood in the way of Przedpelk Kropidlowski, a Polish knight of the Dryja clan, together with forty comrades in arms. He fell to his knees and was taken prisoner, like a knight, as was his wish, after also surrendering his banner. Two princes, who were helping the Teutonic knights with their own armies and under their own banners, were taken prisoner: Kazimierz of Szczecin was taken by Skarbek of Gora; Konrad Bialy of Olesnica by Czech Jost of Salc. In addition, many knights from different armies and of various nationalities were taken prisoner. A considerable number of knights who escaped from the Prussian units found refuge behind the Prussian supply columns and in the camp. Attacked fiercely by the king’s army as it fought its way into the supply columns and to the camp, they perished or were taken prisoner. Also the enemy’s camp, filled with all kinds of riches and wagons, as well as all the possessions of the Prussian master and of his army, were plundered by the Polish knights. They found in the Teutonic camp several heavy wagons loaded with fetters and chains which the Teutonic knights had brought to shackle the Polish prisoners, since they had promised themselves a sure victory, without considering God’s intervention and without thinking about the battle, but only about a triumph. They also found other wagons full of pine fire-brands soaked with tallow and tar, also arrows greased with tallow and tar, with which they were going to chase the defeated and escaping soldiers. In their delusion caused by pride, they were too eager to anticipate an outcome which rested in God’s hands, not leaving any room for God’s power. But according to God’s just verdict, obliterating their pride, the Poles were putting them in those fetters and chains. It was an event worth watching, and also surprising, when it comes to pondering matters concerning human fate, that the lords were put in their own fetters and chains, which they themselves had prepared, and the enemies’ wagons, amounting to several thousands, were plundered within a quarter of an hour by the king’s army, to such a degree that not a trace was left of them.
In addition, there were many barrels of wine in the camp and on the Prussian wagons, which the king’s army, exhausted by toils of battle and summer heat, descended upon after defeating the enemy, in order to quench their thirst. Some knights quenched their thirst by scooping up the wine with their helmets, others used gloves, and still others boots. And the Polish King Wladyslaw ordered the wine barrels destroyed and smashed, fearing that his army, if they got drunk with wine, could become inefficient and be easily defeated by a cowardly enemy, if somebody had enough courage to begin a battle, and also that the army could become prone to sickness and weakness. When, following the king’s order, the barrels were quickly smashed, the wine flowed over the corpses of the dead, a big pile of them in the place where the enemy’s camp was. It was seen flowing mixed with the blood of the dead people and the horses in a red stream up toward the meadows of the Stebark village and because of the swift current, it formed a streambed. They say that it gave rise to tall stories among the people, to stories that described how in that battle so much blood was spilled that it flowed like a stream.
Later they found not far from the enemy’s camp in a little forest covered with trees that we call birches, seven Teutonic banners left by the fleeing army, carefully stuck in the ground, which were immediately carried to the king. The commander of Tuchola, Henryk, who had ordered two swords to be carried in front of him and would not be swayed from this proudful order by his good advisors, when he arrived in Wielchniowa in his shameful escape from the battlefield, was caught by his pursuers and died in a pitiful way, by decapitation, and suffered a terrible but just punishment for his lack of reason and his pride. Some pious and humble men, who were allowed to see it by God’s mercy, saw in the air during the battle an illustrious man clothed in a bishop’s robes, constantly blessing the Polish army, as long as the battle went on and the victory was on the side of the Poles. It was believed that it was Saint Stanislaw, bishop of Cracow, patron of the Poles and the first martyr, thanks to whose intercession and help the Poles, as is known, won this famous victory.
Pursuit of the fleeing Teutonic Knights
After smashing the enemy’s supply column, the king’s army came to a hill, on which stood the enemy’s permanent camp, and they saw many enemy units and detachments scattering in escape, and the light reflecting off their armor, which nearly all of them wore. The Polish army continued chasing them, entered wet meadows, threw themselves at the enemies and defeated the handful that had dared to offer resistance. Following the king’s order to the knights to end the slaughter, they chased the remaining unit, not allowing any bloody outrages. It was then that the Polish king gave a sign to order the knights to chase the fleeing enemies, having admonished them to refrain absolutely from slaughter. The pursuit stretched for many miles. The handful that had taken flight earlier escaped. Many knights were captured and brought to the camp and the victors treated them with leniency. The next day they were handed over to the king. Because of the crowding and pushing, many drowned in a pond, two miles from the battle scene. The approaching night interrupted the pursuit. Fifty thousand enemies perished in that battle, and forty thousand were taken prisoner. It was reported that 51 banners were taken. The victors became rich with the enemy’s booty. Although I am convinced that it is a difficult thing to count exactly how many of the enemies perished, however the road was covered with corpses for many miles, the soil was soaked with the blood of the dead, and the air was filled with the cries of the dying and of the moaning.
This text is from Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century: A Bilingual Anthology, selected and translated by Michael J. Mikos (Waszawa: Constans, 1999). We thabk Michael Mikos for his permission to republish this section. Those interested in this book should contact the publisher at: email@example.com