The Samogitians crush the Teutonic Knights at Durbė (drawing by Šarūnas Miškinis, from Gimtoji Šalis Lietuva)

The Battle of Durbė – 13 July, St. Margaret’s Day, 1260



LESS WELL KNOWN THAN THE crusades in Outremer, crusading wars in the Baltic region were just as bloody and fruitless as those in the Holy Land. Crusading was an ongoing military occupation, supported politically by European rulers, and sanctioned by the Church. Just as Pope Urban II preached the original crusade at the Synod of Clermont in 1095, so did Pope Alexander II launch the Baltic Crusade against the pagans eighty years later. Twenty years after that, the crusade to Livonia began, followed by Estonia and Prussia in 1216 and 1226 respectively. Early 13th century France spawned the Albigensian Crusade against Cathar heretics, Iberian wars for the reconquest of Spain were in full swing, and so on. Crusading was a widespread and popular “noble” cause against all non-Christians in the “civilized” world with the Inquisition as a lasting example of extremes. These wars, carried out in the name of the Catholic Church, continued in the Baltics well into the 15th century.

Teutonic Order campaigns in Prussia were soon followed by crusades aimed at the last pagans in Europe. The idea gained strength in 1259 and was renewed in February the following year when, urged by the Teutonic Order, Pope Alexander IV preached the crusades to Livonia. They were equal in many respects to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Those taking up the cross were exempt from all fees, tolls and taxes. Scutage was encouraged from those who could not bear arms. Everyone taking part, personally or materially, enjoyed the same indulgences and privileges previously granted to crusaders in Outremer. These incentives joined the armies of the Livonian and the Prussian religious military orders in the common goal to Christianize the last pagans in Europe. But it was, in fact, another Drang nach Osten land conquest endeavor.

The combined armies gathered in Memelburg Castle at Klaipėda and attracted many secular knights, various “guests,” and crusading pilgrims. Burkhard von Hornhausen, the Grand Master of the Livonian Order, was instrumental in this remarkable achievement. Heinrich von Botel of the Prussian Teutonic Order supported the venture and the crusading army grew rapidly. Its objective was to strike at the heart of pagan Samogitia (Žemaitija – present day western Lithuania.)

While the crusader armies gathered, a Samogitian army of similar size was besieging Georgenburg Castle some 65 kilometers east of Klaipėda. Relief of this fortress soon took priority in Hornhausen’s plans, but having received word of a large crusader army a few days march away, the Samogitians abandoned the siege and moved northwest, raiding and pillaging Teutonic Kurland. Sources are not clear on the circumstances surrounding the meeting of the opposing forces. Most likely Hornhausen learned of enemy progress deeper into Kurland and decided to intercept. His army set off northward along the Baltic coast.


Kurland (Kuršiai), the western most region of present day Latvia which, in the 13th century, was under the domination of the Teutonic Order under auspices of the Arch- bishopric of Riga, was the land where the armies met and fought one of the most important battles in Lithuania’s early history. A large portion of Kurland later became part of the vast Lithuanian Kingdom, but during the early Baltic Crusades, it was the scene of constant conflict between the Teutonic Knights, the local clans, and the newly formed Lithuanian State. The Kurs and some neighboring clans were recruited into Teutonic Order service against the stronger and better organized Lithuanian resistance. Samogitia, in particular, was always troublesome to crusading progress, and the traditionally proud (some say stubborn) Samogitians were the last pagans in Europe to be Christianized.

The field chosen by Prince Treniota, the Samogitian commander, lies along the west bank of Durbė River where it joins Durbės Ezers (lake) in present day Latvia. It is a rolling plain just over one kilometer wide, bordered by a wood on the west. The ground is generally firm as it was during the battle. This is brought out by heavy cavalry’s ability to charge unimpeded. But Treniota’s choice also provided cover for his division, and his right flank was secured by the river. That he chose to conceal his full strength in the wood while placing his smaller division in the open shows astute planning to use surprise against the enemy. The field narrowed to less than one kilometer southward. It meant that Treniota could better hold a position on the narrower front there, in the event a withdrawal became necessary.

Crusader Army

Command and control of combined allied armies is always problematic. More so when army composition is as varied and motley as it was at Durbė. There were the pressed, conscript auxiliary troops of Lettgalians, Estonian Danes, and Kurs. There were Central European secular knights and pilgrims from many lands. And there were the knights of the Teutonic Orders from Prussia and Livonia. These last were the elite warrior class, but they were not tasked with leading the battle formations of the less experienced troops, as is mistakenly claimed by uninformed sources. To do so is wasteful of the armored fist which heavy cavalry was meant to be. Medieval knights were individual fighters in closely formed units used as shock troops and cannot be compared to the modern concept of the officer corps. Unit commanders were chosen from among the most experienced soldiers within their respective formations, but more often they were militarily unqualified nobility of the higher political or social classes.

The crusader army’s numerical superiority, and higher quality armor and weaponry at Durbė was a significant advantage over the enemy. The two Grand Masters in command had been conducting warfare in the region for some time and were experienced and capable leaders.

How large was the Teutonic host?

Sources vary in defining army size but, except for one extraordinary claim of 11,000, they don’t vary by much. About 280 knights seems the consensus and is probably accurate given a force of 4,000 men. Knights were the only heavy cavalry in full armor. Other heavy troops were lighter armored but under the same battlefield doctrine. The rest wore partial armor or no armor at all. Main weapons were sword, lance and spear. Only the Kurs seem to have had bows. If infantry was present, they played no part in the battle.

Based on available sources, it is reasonable to fix the number at about 4,000. Thirteenth century armies tended to be smaller than their 14th century counterpart, and the Order could not field the additional troops needed in garrisons to guard against current uprisings by the Semgalians (Žiemgaliai) in Kurland which King Mindaugas of Lithuania supported. Battle organization generally used by the Teutonic Order is well known and there is no evidence to suggest anything unusual at Durbė.

The combined army commander was Burkhard von Hornhausen, the Grand Master of the Livonian Order. He was plagued with mistrust among the various nationalities in his army and the difficulty of maintaining cohesion in the conscripted ranks of the auxiliaries. The Teutonic Knights had already suffered two major defeats at the hands of the Samogitians — Saulė in 1236, where the Schwertbruder Order was annihilated, and then Schoden (Skuodas) in 1259. Now they faced the same enemy once more – a stronger and better organized enemy than before.

Samogitian Army

The Lithuanian army at Durbė was a unified force of men who shared the same heritage, culture, and language – they were all Samogitians. Army size can be deduced from 13th century Lithuanian population density of three per square kilometer. This means Samogitia had 50,000 inhabitants. At the generally accepted ratio of soldiers at 10%, we have 5,000. Considering the weak industry and modest agriculture of the time, this number is much too high. The difficulty of assembling such numbers must farther reduce the final count. Based on contemporary sources 2,800 is not unreasonable to assume. With addition of troops sent by the King, the Samogitian army could have been 3,400 strong. There is no evidence, however, to support the claim that King Mindaugas himself was present at Durbė.

After Mindaugas united the Baltic clans to form the Lithuanian State and was crowned King in 1253, most of Samogitia was ceded to the Teutonic Knights in hopes of keeping them out of other Lithuanian territory. Mindaugas already had enemies in the East and South (Russians, Mongols, and Poles) without adding the crusaders West and North of his borders. He knew the Samogitians would not give in to Teutonic Order domination and, in fact, supported their resistance efforts.

Organization and unit formations are not known. However, they had to be vastly different from the Teutonic norm. This was also an all-cavalry force, but horses were smaller, faster, and more maneuverable. Armor was lighter and the weapons were the bow, javelin, and sword or battle-axe. Tactics centered around missilery as opposed to the enemy’s favored charge and melee. Hit and run was a ruse to incite enemy pursuit into prepared crossfire positions.

It is not by accident that this is reminiscent of Mongol tactics. Prince Treniota, the Samogitian commander at Durbė, defeated the Mongols more than once using their own tactics against them which they were ill-prepared to repel. Treniota was the nephew of King Mindaugas and the son of Duke Vykintas. Like his father before him, he was a warrior and commander of the first rank.

Commanding the smaller division was Algminas (Aliminas) who already had a reputation as a fierce military leader. Four years before the Battle of Durbė, he began raids against the Kurs who had earned his ire for their tolerance of Christianity imposed by the Teutonic Order. He also took a dim view of his own king (Mindaugas) for accepting Christianity and ceding Samogitian lands to the Order. When the Order Knights refused to defend the Kurs against him, it set them in bad light in Kurland whose people expected protection. This may explain the Kurlanders’ extraordinary behavior during the battle.

Baltic lands in the 13th century.
Baltic lands in the 13th century.

The Battle

Sources say little about unit formations before battle was joined. Based on our knowledge of the field, customary conventions of the time, and detailed contemporary descriptions of the action itself, however, fairly accurate conclusions can be drawn. Crusader allies formed the traditional three “battles” (divisions) with knights in the front ranks to comply with the medieval idea of honor in being first to meet the enemy, and auxiliary units behind them.

Mounted retinue of secular knights and squires supporting the 280 monastic knights would have been about 900. Combined, they make up a line of at least 600 meters. Allowing space between the three divisions the army front extends to nearly one kilometer, spanning the field. Most sources concur the center was led by Burkhard von Hornhausen and the division closest to the wood by Heinrich von Botel.-

On the Samogitian side Algminas’ division faced the enemy formation in the open. It included most of the missile cavalry (horse archers). Treniota’s larger contingent waited in the wood at the Samogitian left flank, slightly behind Algminas. This division was made up of heavier troops armed with axes, swords, and spears. Algminas’ objective was to receive the charge by the Order’s knights and enact a fighting withdrawal or feigned flight to encourage pursuit into the path of Treniota’s stronger division, whose objective was to strike the pursuers from the flank.

Before delving into action in the field, we should revisit Hornhauser’s potential problem with the Kurs. Some historians claim that their premeditated flight from the field was known to Treniota. It was meant to help Samogitians win the battle as a means to rid themselves of the Teutonic yoke and appease Treniota in the future. Premeditated or not, the Kurs fled the field behind the Lettgalians and Estonian Danes soon after battle was joined.

It began as expected, with the knightly charge of the two Grand Masters’ forward units. Algminas’ withdrawal was well timed as it spread the advancing enemy across the field to a depth of well over one kilometer. It made the enemy position vulnerable to Treniota’s flank attack which pushed the Teutonic Knights towards the Durbė River. They suddenly found themselves hemmed in on both flanks and still faced with Algminas’ division, now reformed to make a stand.

It was then that the Kurs rallied, turned about face, and rejoined the battle to strike the Teutonic Order from the rear. Already scattered in small groups, the Knights were encircled and decimated.

The Order’s losses were enormous. All 900 of the retinue perished. 200 Brother Knights were lost on the field of battle, including both Grand Masters. Only a dozen were captured and executed as sacrifice to pagan gods. Losses in auxiliary ranks are not known (most of them left the field), but the Teutonic Order was unable to field an army of similar size for the next 65 years.

The Battle of Durbė was a clear demonstration of traditional European heavy cavalry frontal assault tactics overcome by light, highly maneuverable missile cavalry horse archers in the proven Mongolian style, including stealth and surprise.


Crediting the Kingdom of Lithuania with this victory must be considered unethical. Samogitia still claimed independence from Livonia and Lithuania, and saw itself as an autonomous state. King Mindaugas’ efforts to annex it as well as the Order’s desire to subjugate it by force had not been successful. The Battle of Durbė was a Samogitian victory in all respects. The King’s assistance was welcome, but we must wonder if the outcome might not have been the same without it.

Immediate consequences of this battle were far reaching. The first was the uprising against the Teutonic Order in Prussia which lasted 14 years. Then, Samogitian takeover of Kurland’s castles invalidat- ed King Mindaugas’ land grants to the Order. Kurland became Samogitian land. Livonian ethnic uprisings by the Lettgalians, Semgalians, Estonians, and Kurs made Teutonic rule untenable. Although the Order regained Kurland seven years later, Semgalia was free until 1290. Teutonic Order forays into Lithuania were stopped or reduced long enough to give needed time for reconstruction of the national government during the political crisis following the king’s murder in 1263.

The Battle of Durbė was one of the three most important military actions of the Lithuanian state during this period. Saulė spelled the end of the Schwertbruder Order (Kalavijuočiai), and Shoden served notice to the Teutonic Order (Kryžiuočiai) in no uncertain terms. Although the much better known Battle of Tannenberg (or Grünwald – Žalgirio Mūšis) 150 years later, was the swan song of the Teutonic Order and put an end to Teutonic oppression, the battles at Durbė, Saulė, and Shoden do not pale in comparison. They are the victories which showed the subjugated population that they were not defeated and began what only remained for the Battle of Tannenberg to finish.