home & art/culture events organizations publications
Lithuanian history:
Vytautas the Great

Vytautas the Great of Lithuania

"Vytautas the Great"
1930 painting by J. Zakaras

Vytautas was the son of Kęstutis, Duke of Trakai, and his second wife Birutė from western Samogitian region of Lithuania. Prior to her marriage to Kęstutis, Birutė guarded an eternal flame in a pagan sanctuary on a hill near today's town of Palanga on the Baltic Sea coast. Vytautas was Birutė's oldest son.He was born about the year 1350 in Trakai.

When Vytautas was just 18 years old he was already participating in military expeditions against Moscow. At age 20 he fought the Teutonic Knights and their Prussian militias at Rudava. By his mid-twenties Vytautas was ruling as the Duke of Gardinas.

Vytautas married Ona, the daughter of Sudimantas, a Lithuanian noble, in about 1370. Vytautas and Ona had a daughter named Sofia, who married Grand Prince Vasily of Moscow in January 1390. After Ona's death, Vytautas married her niece Julija. Vytautas' other children must have died young and are not known.

When the conflict between his father Kęstutis and Grand Duke Jogaila was provoked by deceptive actions of the Teutonic Knights, Vytautas tried to defend Jogaila and convince his father that Jogaila was not plotting against him. Uconvinced, Kęstutis removed Jogaila from power in 1382 and warfare broke out between the two. Kęstutis and Vytautas were captured and imprisoned: Vytautas in Vilnius and Kęstutis in Krevo. Kęstutis was killed by servants sent from Vilnius. Vytautas escaped and went to seek help from the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, where he converted to Christianity and was baptised as Vigand. A period of Vytautas' collaboration with Teutonic Knights and intermittent secret negotiations with Jogaila followed. Eventually in 1392, when Jogaila as the king of Poland finally agreed to return to Vytautas his family's former lands and to recognize him as the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Vytautas reconciled with Jogaila and returned to rule in Vilnius.

The Order of Teutonic Knights continued its attacks on Lithuania's western region of Samogitia. Parts of Samogitia had been given to the Knights by King Mindaugas. Samogitians, however, had never submitted to the Knights, resisted conversion to Christianity, and were defended by Algirdas and Kęstutis. When in 1409 Jogaila warned the Teutonic Knights' grandmaster to stop his attacks on Samogitia because Jogaila considered Lithuania to be part of his domain, the Teutonic Knights responded by declaring war on Poland and invading parts of northern Poland. The outbreak of fighting in Poland alarmed King Wenceslas of Hungary who helped to broker a temporary truce lasting until June 26, 1410. In December of 1409, Vytautas and Jogaila met at Brest for secret talks to plan joint action against the Teutonic Knights in Prussia. Plans were made and preparations began in early 1410. In June armies were assembled near Plock in Poland, were provisioned, and by the end of the month set out toward the Teutonic Knights' stronghold of Marienburg in Prussia. The Polish army with Moldovan allies was led by Jogaila and the Lithuanian army with Tatar and Smolensk allies was led by Vytautas. The combined army had a cavalry of about thirty thousand and an infantry of about eighteen thousand fighters. They were met by a somewhat smaller, but possibly a better trained force of Teutonic Knights and their allies on a hot July 15 near the towns of Grunwald and Tannenberg.

The German grandmaster and the grandmarshal were confident of a big victory and they had come prepared - they brought loads and loads of chains for binding the many captives they expected to take. They were the first to reach the battlefield early in the morning, they selected their position on the field carefully, and they prepared their force to absorb a frontal cavalry charge. As the morning progressed, however, their knights found themselves being slow-cooked in their heavy armor by the hot July sun, while their opponents on the other side of the field were in a cool shade at the edge of a forest. Delaying tactics by Jogaila forced the German command to change its battle plan and order a controlled advance toward the opposing army. A crushing cavalry charge was not possible because of the proximity of trees to the enemy's lines. At this point Vytautas' and Jogaila's forces also advanced and the battle began.

The ensuing battle was hard fought and lasted for hours. Vytautas was in the midst of the fight leading his forces. Jogaila had a commanding view of the battlefield from a nearby hilltop. The turning point in the battle came when elements of Vytautas' army feigned flight, only to return and strike the German army from the rear, causing confusion, panic, and ultimately defeat, and flight. Thousands lay dead and dying on the field. The German grandmaster and grandmarshal were among them. Vytautas and Jogaila then made a strategic error by not pursuing the defeated army all the way to Marienburg, but ordering a two day halt to rest, to tend to the wounded, and to bury the dead.

Among the prizes of the battle were battle flags, weapons, armor, horses, and about three thousand captives, many of them of high rank in the Teutonic Order and western nobility. Two unlucky captives were leaders of the Order who had in the past insulted Vytautas' mother. Vytautas recognized them and had them executed.

In spite of their great losses the Teutonic Knights were not finished, but they lost parts of Prussia and never regained their former strength.The battle in a field near Grunwald and Tannenberg altered the course of history in the Baltic region. Vytautas proved his military skills and came to be known as Vytautas the Great.

Vytautas continued to rule Lithuania very ably, but his ambition to be crowned King of Lithuania was not realized. He died on October 27, 1430. When riding from Vilnius to Trakai with some important guests, Vytautas fell from his horse. Because of his injuries he had to be placed in a wagon for the remainder of the trip. When hey arrived in Trakai, he laid down and never rose again. Vytautas was 80 years old. (Click here to read more history.)

battle of Grunwald

"Battle of Grunwald" 1878 oil on canvas painting by Jan Matejko (Vytautas is in the center in red)