The Battle of Durbė: How medieval Samogitians defied the will of their king

The Battle of Durbė. Painting by Vincas Norkus

A monument to commemorate the Battle of Durbė will be unveiled on July 23 in Telšiai. While the battle did not occur at Telšiai, but near Durbė (a river and a lake in Latvia), the Samogitians are, for good reason, proud of the victory against the Teutonic Order and Telšiai is considered the Samogitian capital.

Duke Mindaugas, upon being crowned the king of Lithuania and accepting Christianity, transferred parts of his Samogitian lands to the Teutonic knights who were encroaching on his state from the west and the north. For the knights, Samogitia was a strategically important region as it physically separated their Prussian and Livonian branches.

The Samogitians, however, thought differently. They did not recognize the transfer and fought for their independence in a series of battles, the most important of which happened by the Lake of Durbė, some 23 km east of present-day Liepaja in Latvia.

On 13 July 1260, the Samogitians soundly defeated the joint forces of the Teutonic Knights from Prussia and Livonian Order from Livonia. Some 150 knights were killed, including Livonian Master Burchard von Hornhausen and Prussian Land Marshal Henrik Botel. It was by far the largest defeat of the nights in the thirteenth century.

It also inspired a series of uprisings in the Baltic lands then controlled by the knights, including the Great Prussian Uprising (1260-1274), undoing decades of Livonian conquests.

Historian Inga Baranauskienė, interviewed by, explains in more detail the circumstances behind the battle, its significance and meaning for the development of the Lithuanian state.

She is the author of the historical novel “Durbės mūšis. Nepasidavę lemčiai” (“The Battle of Durbė. Not Giving In to Fate”). The novel was conceived in the run-up to the 750th anniversary of the Durbė battle in 2010. Her husband, historian Tomas Baranauskas, was contacted by an artist who wanted to create a graphic novel about the battle, asking Mr. Baranauskas to write the story.

The novel came about while writing the comic?

The Battle of Durbė happened on July 13, 1260. The battle of Grunwald – on July 15, 1410. They are separated by 150 years and three days. When in 2010 we could have had a big celebration of the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Durbė, the Battle of Grunwald was celebrating its 600th anniversary, thus leaving Durbė undeservedly forgotten. The comic was not released. I wrote the novel. I was then contacted by Samogitian activists to also write a historical book on Durbė. That is how I started focusing on this battle.

As we know, part of Samogitia was given to the German (Livonian) Order in 1253 (well before the Battle of Durbė) by Mindaugas, who had already been crowned the King of Lithuania. But the Samogitians went and resisted such a decision made by their ruler. Was this not a rare event in those times?

It cannot be said that this is the first and only exceptional event in the general European historical context. Examples of insubordination to rulers occurred, but it was essentially a rare phenomenon.

Rulers would often trade their land for funds. For example, our neighbours the Masurians traded some of their castles to the Teutonic Order in exchange for their debts. Similar situations could be seen in the Hungarian Kingdom, in the territory of contemporary Slovakia. Several castles near the Poprad River were handed over to Jogaila [Fifteenth-century ruler of Poland and Lithuania] because of debts. The then King of Hungary, Sigismund of Luxemburg, borrowed money from Jogaila. For this he gave up several castles, which would belong to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until its dissolution [in the 1790s]. By the way, these castles are in resort areas in Slovakia favoured by Lithuanian tourists.

In general, local communities in most cases had neither the will nor the power to resist hand-overs like this. By rebelling, the Samogitians showed exceptional courage.

How would local communities realize they were under a new ruler?

Through taxation. There may have been little difference to the people who collects their taxes, one lord or another. Therefore in many cases everything would be settled peacefully.

The case of Samogitia was exceptional. This wasn’t just a question of taxation and obeisance to the lord. The Samogitians felt part of the Lithuanian state at that point. And when Lithuania tried to make a deal with the Teutonic Order at their expense, they seriously resented it.

How did Mindaugas feel and act in the face of the Samogitian defiance?

Mindaugas was cornered. It must not be thought that Samogitia was signed away to the Teutons from a position of strength. An internal war had been raging in Lithuania, partly caused by the Samogitians. Half of the Samogitians had pledged their loyalty to Duke Vykintas.

The war started because Tautvilas (Mindaugas’ nephew) and Vykintas was sent to fight in Russia. But they got embroiled in conflicts with local dukes, attacked those they shouldn’t have, not to mention they lost appallingly. And then, possibly out of fear of Mindaugas’ wrath, decided to rebel against him and declare that he wanted to kill them. Then they made a deal with the Teutonic Order.

Vykintas (I have no idea why the Samogitians are venerate and are so proud of him) played a particularly negative role – he made that deal, while Tautvilas was Christened. Then Mindaugas was left with no other way out than to offer alternative terms to the Teutons.

A part of the Livonian Order was unsatisfied that their leader had made a deal with Mindaugas. The Master was even accused of taking a bribe. The Grand Order Master from central headquarters sent his representative to examine the entire situation. Mindaugas also had his back to the wall. Though the Pope gave permission for his coronation already in 1251, the coronation was halted until 1253.

Mindaugas was not the only Lithuanian ruler to make deals with the Teutonic Order, Vytautas would do so as well later, but their approaches were different. When the Samogitians showed that they can resist, Mindaugas did not provide support. Vytautas organised Samogitian rebellions himself and offered vast support.

A new leader from Samogitia – Duke Alminas, who fought and won, became Mindaugas’ enemy. This is likely related to simple human envy. After all, Mindaugas, as far as we know, had achieved no great victories. Well, one can guess that he participated in the Battle of Šiauliai (also known as “Saulės Mūšis”- “Battle of the Sun”) in 1236, possibly his only battlefield victory. Some historians, especially Samogitians, are convinced that this was only a Samogitian battle. I am more convinced that it was a battle and victory of joint Lithuanian forces.

In later times where Mindaugas would appear, he would lose. Thus the Samogitian Duke Alminas in such a context appeared as an unfathomable war genius, who knew how to be a leader, to inspire people.

How quickly did Mindaugas agree to renounce the crown?

The Battle of Durbė was not the only outcome of the Samogitian resistance. In fact, there were four battles which lasted eight years, if we include the time from the consignation of the Samogitians to the Teutonic Order to Mindaugas’ decision to take them in again.

Initially the Samogitians only resisted, later they won a minor battle near Klaipėda, signed a ceasefire treaty, while Mindaugas reconfirmed the hand-over of Samogitia to the Teutonic Order. The Samogitians rallied to fight again and won an even bigger Battle of Skuodas. This time, on the eve of the ceasefire, Mindaugas signed away all of Samogitia to the Teutons.

Also on the eve of the Battle of Durbė, after earlier Samogitian victories, Mindaugas declared the Teutonic Order the inheritors of the Lithuanian state, should he die with no heirs. A document by Mindaugas is a testament to this, albeit held to be counterfeit by some historians.

In their fight against the Teutons the Samogitians also felt psychological pressure from Mindaugas. On the eve of every battle, he would stress he would definitely not support them.

Given this, the Samogitians must have particularly disliked Mindaugas?

It was hard for the Samogitians to change their attitude toward Mindaugas quickly because earlier, during an internal war, they supported Mindaugas in his fight against Tautvilas, they put much faith in Mindaugas and were loyal.

After the Battle of Durbė, there was also a small Battle of Lielvardė where Curonia and Prussia rebelled, new victories were obtained. Semigalia had also rebelled on the eve of the Battle of Durbė. A massive region successfully fought the Teutonic Order, while Mindaugas still kept to a policy of cooperation with them.

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