Battle of Wesenberg: Danish-Estonian Army with Livonian Crusaders Fight Russians to a Draw

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Battle of Wesenberg: Danish-Estonian Army with Livonian Crusaders Fight Russians to a Draw

"Battle of Wesenberg" artist unknown
Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 18, 1268

Today's featured clash occurred during a period in northern Europe when several national entities were seeking to Christianize the pagan peoples of what is today Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Russia. This particular fight took place about 26 years after the famed Russian victory at the battle of Lake Peipus (better known as the "battle on the ice"). This fight is covered in two competing chronicles of the 13th century, with the final result up for grabs.


In the late eleventh century, German and Danish merchants began to enter this area to extend their trade connections to the Varangian (later Russian) inland territories. At the same time, German knights who had participated in the Crusades in the Holy Land were looking for other pagans to convert to Christianity. Consequently, with the approval of the Pope, German, Danish, and other northern European knights turned their attention to the tribes of what are modern-day Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. These campaigns are known to history as the Livonian Crusade; they are also known as the Northern Crusade, or the Baltic Crusade.

One of the first major players in this contest was the Teutonic Knights. They had begun life as Crusaders in the Holy Land. They then decided their particular talents were needed elsewhere, which is why they moved into eastern Europe on the eastern and southern shores of the Baltic Sea. In 1237, a related group – known as the Livonian Brothers of the Sword – was nearly wiped out in a battle with Lithuanian tribesmen. Fearing they would be unable to recruit replacements, the Sword-Brothers were incorporated into the Teutonic Knights by order of the Pope. They still were allowed a great deal of autonomy, and were known generally as the Livonian Order.

Painted miniatures representing Livonian Sword-Brothers (Note the Teutonic Knight flag, representing their liege status) Image courtesy of
Painted miniatures representing Livonian Sword-Brothers
(Note the Teutonic Knight flag, representing their liege status)
Image courtesy of

At the same time, just to the east of the Estonian-Latvian nations were the lands of various Russian princes. Most notable were the Republics of Pskov and Novgorod. At this time, Pskov was joined to Novgorod politically. Novgorod was a tributary to the Mongol Golden Horde; in fact, under their former ruler Prince Alexander Nevsky, the principality had peacefully surrendered to the Mongol, and largely avoided large-scale plundering which was characteristic of the Asiatic invaders.

In the eyes of many Europeans, the Russians were viewed as collaborators with the Mongols. In addition, the Russians' Orthodox faith put them outside normal cultural and political dealings with the West. Therefore, German and Danish Crusaders viewed the Russians as prime targets for conversion to Catholicism.

Russian heavy cavalry, mid-13th century, charging in wedge; Image from
Russian heavy cavalry, mid-13th century, charging in wedge
Image from

In April of 1242, Russian military forces met a Danish-Estonian-German army attempting to invade Novgorod. The battle occurred on the eastern shore of Lake Peipus. It resulted in a Russian victory, and the eastward march of the German Crusaders was halted. [For further information on this fight, readers are encouraged to read my BurnPit blog posting at this link:]

By all indications, the next 20+ years were a kind of "cold war" between the western Crusaders and the Russians. Each side launched small-scale, local raids on the other side, while the Crusaders continued their efforts to Christianize the local inhabitants of the Estonian-Latvian area.

Map of Livonia (medieval Estonia/Latvia), c. AD 1260; Originally created by the MapMaster for Wikipedia [Rakovor is a variant name for Wesenberg]
Map of Livonia (medieval Estonia/Latvia), c. AD 1260
Originally created by the MapMaster for Wikipedia
[Rakovor is a variant name for Wesenberg]

Prelude to the Battle

In 1253, the Danes built a stone fortification in northeastern Estonia, naming it Wesenberg (also known as Rakovor, modern name Rakvere) to protect their interests in northern Estonia. The Russians viewed this fortress as a possible base for launching a new crusade against them. In 1267 the Russians besieged the fortress unsuccessfully and retreated with losses. Several months later, the Russians prepared another attack, mustering a larger army from Novgorod, Pskov and elsewhere in northwest Russia. They also signed a treaty with the archbishop of Riga, the bishop of Dorpat, and the master of the Livonian Order, which forbade their interference in the upcoming war between the Russians and the Estonian vassals of the Danish king.

The Russian invasion force entered Danish Estonian territory in mid-January, commenced to loot and burn the outlying areas, intent upon attacking Wesenberg once more. When he received reports of the Russian incursion, the Danish viceroy of Estonia, Woghen Palissun, quickly sent frantic messages to nearby Dorpat and the Livonian Sword-Brothers, asking for aid against the attack by the "pagan" Russians. In mid-February, the defending forces came together somewhere in the vicinity of Wesenberg (perhaps at the castle itself) and marched eastward to confront the Russian army.

Russian Army

Russian armies of the late 13th century were composed of a mixture of troop types. They included:

  • Heavy cavalrymen (knights), which comprised a third of the army;
  • Light horse archers made up to one quarter, likely Khazars or Mongols; and,
  • Heavy spearmen, archers, and light-armored axemen made up the remainder.

Russian spearman, mid-13th century; Image courtesy of
Russian spearman, mid-13th century
Image courtesy of

Danish-Estonian-Livonian Army

Despite the various portions of this army coming from three different political entities, they had a great deal in common. The core of each consisted of heavy knights. Light cavalrymen made up another portion, these horsemen likely served in the personal retinues of the knights. [There is the possibility that the Livonian Order used "turcopoles" or light horse archers as their Teutonic Brothers had used in the Holy Land. These could have been Mongols, Khazars, or Lithuanians.]

Danish heavy axemen, mid-13th century; Image courtesy of
Danish heavy axemen, mid-13th century
Image courtesy of

Other contingents of this combined army likely included: crossbowmen, spearmen, javelin skirmishers, war bands of sword-armed subject Estonians, and – for the Danes – axe-wielding heavy footmen similar to the Viking huscarls of the 9th-11th centuries.

[The size of each army is subject to historical speculation. One online source claimed that both armies comprised about 5000 soldiers; another source claimed the Russian army numbered between 16,000-30,000 effectives, with the Danish-Estonian-Livonian force at 25,000 soldiers.]

Battle of Wesenberg

There are two histories that provide commentary about this battle; one is the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle – giving the Western side of the battle – while the other is the Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, which tells the Russian side. The Livonian Rhymed Chronicle has survived unedited to this day, while the Chronicle of Novgorod has been "edited" (read re-written) at various intervals over the centuries. For this reason, many historians consider the Rhymed Chronicle to possess greater veracity.

As it approached Wesenberg, the Russian invasion force crossed the Kegola River (possibly the Kunda River). Russian scouts reported a similarly-sized force of Danes across the nearly flooded stream. Accompanying the Danes were contingents of reinforcements flying the flags of the Prince-Bishop of Dorpat Alexander (who accompanied his soldiers to the fight); the banners of the Livonian Order were also observed.

The Russians quickly set up camp, then put themselves into battle order. If we believe the battlefield organization as stated in the Chronicle of Novgorod, the invaders established themselves on a ridge or series of hills. The forces of Pskov – mainly militia units – were placed on the Russian right flank. Higher up the hills or ridge, the personal retinue of Dmitry Alexandrovich (son of Alexander Nevsky and commander of the Russian contingents) was placed, possibly as a flank guard for the Pskovian contingent, or to give it some backbone. The remainder of the Novgorodian forces were distributed among the center and right flank.

On the other side, the native Estonian forces were placed on the left flank, including the personal retinue of the Prince-Bishop of Dorpat. Mainly Danish troops comprised the right flank, while the Livonian Sword-Brothers likely were placed in the center (though the Rhymed Chronicle indicates that Livonian Order troops were inserted into any areas of the allied battle line that needed experienced troops for support).

[The chronology of the battle is quite muddled, with neither chronicle giving a thoroughly believable chain of events. What follows is speculation on my part, including some information from each chronicle.]

The Russians likely started the battle – as they were anxious to get to Wesenberg quickly – with a cavalry charge on the allied left and probably center. Pskovian and Dmitri's personal Novgorodian horsemen may have led the attack against the native Estonian infantry and knights of Bishop Alexander (the Rhymed Chronicle states the Prince-Bishop died in early combat). The attack on the Sword-Brothers was beaten back. The Russian cavalry fell back in great disorder, and tried to reorganize for another attack.

Charge of the Livonian Sword-Brothers, artist unknown; Image courtesy of
Charge of the Livonian Sword-Brothers, artist unknown
Image courtesy of

According to the Chronicle of Novgorod, the allied army then launched a heavy cavalry attack on the Russian center. The Danish, Livonian, and Dorpat knights formed a huge wedge, and counter-attacked the invaders. [The wedge was a triangular battle formation used in ancient and medieval times to concentrate a single point of attack on an enemy formation. The Russians called the formation the "great iron pig." Imagine a formation of several hundred or several thousand thundering horsemen charging your formation, intent on death and destruction. Few armies stood against such an assault.] After the Europeans made contact with the Russian center, a drawn-out fight ensued. Rather than penetrating the frontline spearmen in the Russian center, the allied wedge was surrounded and began to be slowly reduced by Russian spears and arrows.

At about the same time, allied mounted reinforcements emerged from their hiding place near the battlefield (hiding in a nearby wood) and attacked the Russian encampment. With the news of their cantonment being ravaged, the morale of many Russian units broke, and they began streaming eastward back to their motherland.

In the confusion of the battle, Dmitri Alexandrovich rallied a force of about 5000 men – probably including his personal retainers – and blocked a bridge over the Kunda River which was one of the few lines of retreat for the Russians. While most of the allied army was busy attacking the Russian camp, a contingent of about 200 Livonian Sword-Brothers launched themselves at Dmitri's rearguard. After absorbing repeated charges and fighting desperately, Dmitri's men finally broke and ran. The battle of Wesenberg was over…


As with most medieval battles, casualties are so much guesswork. The Russians likely lost at least 5000 men killed, while the allies probably sustained similar or perhaps greater numbers of slain.

Footnote #1: According to the Chronicle of Novgorod, the Russians drove the allies off the battlefield and pursued them back to Wesenberg. However, their assaults on the Danish castle were unavailing, and the invaders returned to the site of their camp. They waited three days to renew the fighting, and when no enemy challenged them, the army fell back to Russian territory.

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