The Battle of Grunwald: An Iconic Medieval Battle of Central and Eastern Europe


During medieval times, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had one main enemy – the Teutonic Order. One of the most important battles between these armies took place on July 15, 1410.

In the morning, two large armies stood on opposing sides of the field. One group was led by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Urlich von Jungingen. Their rivals were the connected forces of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania led by King Władysław Jagiełło and his brother Vytautas. According to the descriptions, it was a hot and sunny day. The battle took just a few hours, but there were countless victims. By the evening, the field was full of bodies. The statistics prepared by historians say that the Teutonic Order lost 200-400 Teutonic Knights and 8,000 other warriors, while their enemies lost 4,000-5,000 soldiers. But the newest research suggests different numbers.

The Worst Battle of the Region

The battle is also known as the First Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of Žalgiris. The battlefield was located in the territory of the monastic state of the Teutonic Order. It was on the plains between three villages: Stębark (Tannenberg), Łodwigowo (Ludwikowice, Lidwigsdorf), and Grunwald.

Territory of the State of the Teutonic Order; the locations and dates of major battles, including the Battle of Grunwald, are indicated by crossed red swords. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It was the result of the long lasting conflict between the sides. The Teutonic Order arrived in Prussia in 1230. They conquered the land of Prussia and some other regions which belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Kingdom of Poland. The war with the Teutonic Order started in 1409 with the uprising in Teutonic-held Samogitia. It was started by Vytautas’ forces.

When the conflict grew, Jungingen asked the Polish King to stay neutral and not support Lithuania. Jagiełło refused, so the Grand Master decided to attack the Kingdom of Poland. The Teutonic Order burned the castle at Dobrzyń nad Wisłą and captured Bobrowniki and a few more towns. Negotiation attempts with the Teutonic Order failed, so both sides prepared for battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian forces had their strategy ready at the end of 1409. The King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania decided that their armies would attack the greatest castle and the capital of the Teutonic Order – Marienburg (Malbork). However, the Teutonic Order’s actions finally shifted the battle to the field near Grunwald.

Map of army movements in the Grunwald campaign.

Map of army movements in the Grunwald campaign. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The battle started from a diplomatic incident. According to Jan Długosz, who served as the secretary to the Bishop of Cracow and wrote about the battle 60 years later:

”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 Ulrich sent them to King Władysław, adding also an arrogant order to rouse the king to commence the battle without delay and to stand in ranks to fight.”

It is impossible to count the number of warriors that were in both armies. However, historians suggest that there could have been about 21,000 on the side of Teutonic Order and perhaps 29,000 on the Polish and Lithuanian side. The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order lost his life during the battle – his body was buried in Marienburg Castle. The battle became one of a few of the most important ones in this part of the world, but history describes it a little bit differently.

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief).

Lithuanians fighting with Teutonic Knights (bas-relief). ( Public Domain )

The Power of Propaganda

The battle of Grunwald is one of the most popular motifs in Polish history. It became one of the symbols of Polish bravery and triumph. After the battle, the armies met under the walls of the castle in Malbork (German Marienburg). The siege of Malbork took place from July 25 to September 19, 1410. It ended with the Polish-Lithuanian forces’ loss. Marienburg is now the biggest medieval brick castle in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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