My Other Work

Mszczuj of Skrzynno

Note: To prepare myself for a new career in writing, I signed up for Malcolm Gladwell’s course on MasterClass. An early assignment was to write an article based on a random Wikipedia entry. This is what I produced, hoping it piques your interest.

In the small village of Kije in southern Poland, you will find a statue of a Medieval knight outside the Pińczów County government building. His name was Mszczuj of Skrzynno. The statue is a bright, white stone, and it makes Mszczuj look like a superhero. His broad shoulders carry a cape, his sword in right hand by his side, his helmet visor up so he can stare into the distance. On his chest is a swan, the centerpiece of his coat of arms. In his left hand he is holding up the standard of Poland.

Mszczuj was not from Kije. The lands he owned were in modern day Ukraine. And the act for which he would earn his fame took place in another small, Polish village, roughly 250 miles to the north.

To understand the monument to Mszczuj, we first need to go deep into Poland’s history and introduce the lord he served, King Władysław II Jagiełło.

He was born Jogaila, son of Algirdas, either in 1352 or 1362. Algirdas was the pagan Grand Duke of Lithuania and in his life he used the political turmoil of Medieval eastern Europe to his advantage, acquiring lands stretching from the Black Sea to the modern Baltic states. His son was no less ambitious. As the new Grand Duke, Jogaila sought to continue this expansion. He would soon come into conflict with the knights of the Teutonic Order.

On the northern tip of Israel’s Haifa Bay lies the ancient city of Acre. During the Third Crusade, nearly 200 years before Jogaila was elevated to Grand Duke, a group of Germans set up a small field hospital there as the Teutonic Order. A purely monastic order in the beginning, Pope Innocent III later elevated them to a military status akin to the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. And like the Templars and Hospitallers before them, the Teutonic Knights went on to accumulate vast economic and political power.

As the Crusades in the Holy Land were winding down, ambitious German princes found another mission for the Teutonic Knights—crusades in the pagan lands of eastern Europe. It began with a foray into Transylvania (modern day Romania) on behalf of the King of Hungary, before the King expelled them for refusing to accept his sovereignty over the pope’s. Later in 1230, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II issued his Golden Bull of Rimini, launching a crusade against the Baltic Old Prussians.

The indigenous tribes of Baltic Prussia extended along the coast from northern Poland to the Gulf of Riga, between Latvia and Estonia. They practiced an ancient pagan myth tradition of which little is known today. During the fifty-odd years following Frederick’s Golden Bull, they would be slowly conquered by the Teutonic Knights in a bloody reimagining of the crusades. Wearing a simple black cross on their white garments, the Teutonic Order gradually exterminated what remained of pagan traditions in Europe.

Jogaila’s paganism would not last either. By 1380, the young Grand Duke found himself in a dilemma. He needed to choose a wife.

His mother, Uliana of Tver, wanted him to marry Sofia, daughter of Prince Dmitri of Moscow. Like Uliana, Dmitri and his family were Eastern Orthodox and insisted that Jogaila convert if he was to join the family.

But Jogaila had a problem more serious than pleasing his mother. The Teutonic Knights were now leading a crusade into the empire built by his father. They were determined to Christianize the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and, to them, Christianization meant fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church. Complicating matters further for Jogaila was his cousin, Vytautas, who was operating as a shadow Grand Duke. The two cousins waged war on each other and on the Teutonic Knights, often trying to play the order against one another.

In August 1385, at Kreva Castle in modern Belarus, Jogaila announced his intention to marry the eleven-year-old Queen of Poland, Jadwiga. He promised to repatriate Polish lands stolen by her neighbors and to be baptized in the Catholic faith. Not only would this give the Teutonic Order a reason to stop breathing down his neck in Lithuania, it would also make him King of Poland.

Months later, Jogaila was baptized in Kraków, taking the name Władysław Jagiello. Three days after that he married Jadwiga. Two more weeks and he was crowned King. He was also legally adopted by Jadwiga's mother, Elizabeth of Bosnia, so he would retain the throne in the event of Jadwiga's death. Jadwiga would die in 1399, leaving Jagiello the sole ruler of Poland (and, as he saw it, Lithuania too).

But it failed to stop the Teutonic Knights, who considered Jagiello’s baptism a sham, perhaps even an act of heresy. Jagiello officially converted his realms to Christianity, but the Teutonic Order proceeded with their crusades. Jagiello would fight them on and off again for the rest of his long life.

Ulrich von Jungingen was among the younger sons of a German noble and, as such, was excluded from inheritance in the feudal order. So like his brother Konrad, Ulrich took the vow of the Teutonic Knights. Soon he moved to Teutonic headquarters in Baltic Prussia and saw his career take off when Konrad was elected Grand Master of the order. For the next fourteen years, Ulrich would distinguish himself in military action and diplomacy.

When Konrad suddenly died in 1407, Ulrich was chosen to succeed him.

Immediately, Ulrich faced a geopolitical crisis. Vytautas and Jagiello had joined forces. As diplomatic efforts between Teutonic Prussia and the Poland-Lithuania alliance broke down, the new Grand Master planned a pre-emptive strike. He declared war on Poland in 1409.

Moving his army toward Poland, Ulrich met his rivals on the field of battle outside Grunwald. He was attacked first by Vytautas’ Lithuanian forces and then by Jagiello’s Polish forces. The Teutonic Knights repelled both attacks.

Believing victory was inevitable, Ulrich personally led his remaining regiments to chase down the Polish troops and capture Jagiello. But then communications started to break down. Allies inexplicably broke away. And then the remaining Lithuanian forces attacked from the rear. Ulrich was routed when, suddenly, he was killed, purportedly by Jagiello’s vassal—lionized in stone today at Kije—Mszczuj of Skrzynno.

It’s impossible to say with certainty that Mszczuj killed Ulrich. A 19th Century painting of Ulrich’s death by Jan Matejko shows multiple soldiers aiming their lances at him. But according to 15th Century Polish chronicler Jan Długosz, it was Mszczuj's squire, Jurga, who acquired and handed over holy relics that had previously belonged to Ulrich, as well as his battle cloak. Additionally, it was Mszczuj who helped located Ulrich's body, suggesting the two knights had engaged each other in direct combat.

The Battle of Grunwald was hardly decisive in the broader wars between Poland-Lithuania and the Teutonic Order, but it was a definite turning point. Poland was unable to recapture any lands previously lost to the Teutonic Knights, but the order suffered heavy losses on the battlefield. Roughly three out of every four Teutonic Knights there died. The remaining leaders were held as prisoners for ransom. That ransom came in the form of a peace treaty seven months later.

The terms of the treaty were devastating. The indemnity was 44,000 pounds of silver, to be paid in four installments. The ransom was equal to £850,000, ten times the annual income of King of England. To pay this indemnity the Knights borrowed heavily, confiscated gold and silver from churches, and increased taxes. Two cities in their Prussian territories revolted over the new taxes. The Teutonic Order of the middle ages never recovered from the financial burden of this peace.

For Jagiello and his legacy, the Battle of Grunwald was a pivotal moment, still celebrated by Poles and Lithuanians to this today. His Polish-Lithuanian union would eventually become the historic state of Poland-Lithuania, a republic of two nations, and one of the largest European powers for centuries.

And for his key role in that legacy, Jagiello had the knight Mszczuj of Skrzynno to thank.

Dave Broker