Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Guest Post by Marko Bosscher: April 5, 1272: Alexander Nevsky defeated at the Battle of Lake Peipus

Novgorod was under heavy pressure from both the East and the West. In the east the Golden Horde loomed, while Novgorod was repeatedly invaded from the west during the Northern Crusades. And when the Teutonic Order invaded once again Alexander, elected Prince of Novgorod, marched against them with a substantial army. Meeting the Teutonic forces, led by Hermann the Prince-Bishop of Dorpat, near the bank of Lake Peipus. Hoping to draw the knights into a disadvantageous position Alexander withdrew across the narrow strait connecting Lake Peipus with neighbouring Lake Pskovskoe.

Lake Peipus is unusually shallow for it’s size and is frozen throughout winter, thawing out only at the end of April. The lake thus formed a solid surface for the combatants that 5th of April, but the heavily armoured mounted Teutonic Knights were at a disadvantage when having to charge across the ice. Although the knights drew up in wedge formation Hermann called of the assault when he saw the strength of the Russian position, deciding instead to go around it to find a better approach.

Seeing the Teutonic forces move towards the east bank of the lake Alexander sent out his own cavalry in an attempt to provoke Hermann into an attack. The lighter Russian cavalry was swift enough, even on the ice, to freely harass the Estonian infantry that made up the bulk of Hermann’s force. But rather than being goaded into a frontal assault on the Russian position Hermann lined up his infantry in a defensive position, while sending most of his knights to the shore to move around the enemy position.

What was intended by Hermann to be a temporary position, to hold of the harassing cavalry in anticipation of an assault on Alexander’s position, would become the focal point of the battle. Alexander seeing the opportunity to attack the outnumbered Teutonic forces, and worried about the knights working his flank moved his troops on the ice as well. Leaving behind only a token force to delay the knights moving against them. The battle soon developed into a furious melee as the remaining knights prevented the Russian cavalry from outflanking the Teutonic troops.

An alternate history by Marko 'Lev' Bosscher
Alexander’s ploy failed however when the Teutonic Knights returned, having heard the sounds of battle carried on the wind (a `Zeichen Gottes` according to the knights own chronicler). The knights unexpectedly fell on the left flank of the army of Novgorod and panic swept across the battleline, quickly turning into a full rout. Only Alexander and the ‘druzhina’ (the “fellowship” or retinue, numbering a thousand of the best warriors) held and tried to fight their way back to their original position.

Badly outnumbered they never made it off the ice, Alexander fell among many of his men and the remainder surrendered after being completely encircled. The Teutons then marched South to take Pskov, which they had lost to Alexander the previous year. After receiving further reinforcement from the Livonian Order Hermann marched on Novgorod itself in the summer. It seemed that history would repeat itself as on the approach to Novgorod a Russian army marched to meet the Teutonic forces and oppose them in battle. But this Novgorod had not had the time to recover from it’s losses, the Battle of Lake Peipus had not only cost the Republic most of it’s seasoned warriors but also it’s most capable military leader. The army of Novgorod was swept aside by the invading knights.
But even before Hermann reached the city walls of Novgorod he was met by envoys of the Council of Nobles, and they made a fantastic offer. The republic of Novgorod would submit to the Teutonic Order on the condition that the Republic would continue to exist and maintain it’s current structure. It was a offer that Hermann could hardly refuse, but being a devout Catholic he could not allow Novgorod to remain Orthodox. He sent the envoy back with the message that he would only accept if Novgorod would only elect Catholic Princes, and marched on to lay siege to Novgorod.

Upon reaching the city Hermann found the gates open and messengers proclaiming himself the newly elected Prince of Novgorod. It was a devious political move as it effectively ended the war, but left the Teutons with an Orthodox country in their possession. It would only be the start of of political maneuvering that would see the Archbishop of Novgorod pledged allegiance to the Pope, but maintaining orthodox customs and traditions.

The Teutonic Order thus acted as the sword and shield of Orthodox Novgorod against it’s neighbours and the mongol horde. It was an uneasy alliance held together by Novgorod’s profitable position as gateway to the Baltic Sea and a slow conversion to Catholicism. But it ensured Novgorod’s continued survival into the late Middle Ages and it provided the Teutonic Order with the means to maintain the large armies that were it’s raison d’etre.

In reality, Alexander defeated the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of the Ice and went down in history as Alexander Nevsky, probably the most famous Russian warrior in history and granted sainthood by the Orthodox Church. Novgorod would thrive for several centuries, but would ultimately be annexed by the Grand Duchy of Moscow at the end of the 15th century. 

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