Written by Chris Riley.
One common misconception of the Crusades, is that they only took place in the Middle east, far away from Europe. Yes, the main ‘numbered Crusades’ that we all have heard of, for the most part, took part in and around Palestine and what is today Turkey but, Crusader fever wasn’t limited to the shores of Acre and walls of Jerusalem.
A full map showing the extent of the expeditions carried out during the 2nd Crusade SOUCE: Pintrest, via user Lord David Sellers
By the 12th century, most of Europe was Christian with the exception of small, fringe groups, usually isolated in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. One group were known as The Wends, a Slavic group of peoples situated in Northern Europe close to Denmark who had existed on the boarders of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, dealing in furs, keeping themselves to themselves.
The Wends were known throughout both Europe and the middle east for their fine warriors who were more than generous to outsiders, trading with the northern Europeans and the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, but their biggest weakness was their lack of centralised control. Unlike the emerging kingdom states like, France, England and the German city states, the Wendish people stuck to their small tribal bands, usually fighting over small spots of land amongst themselves, allowing the remain Christians on their border an opportunity.
The Germans of the North
Vast swaths of central Europe were under the indirect control of the Holy Roman Emperor but, the northern regions such as Magdeburg, Saxony and Bremen were left with out support and therefore, Holy Roman interfering. Since the beginning of the 12th century, the German king, Lothar had been striking deals with local Pagans, taking land for himself but, after his death in 1137, many Saxons and other Northerns moved into Wendish territory,
A contemporary portrait of Lothar, King of the Germans SORUCE: Public domain
A Saxon count named Adolf II had been living and working with the Wends since the Saxon incursion of the 1140’s but in 1147, a Wendish raiding party found itself attacking Adolf’s land, robbing the Pagans of their greatest Christian ally.
A Crusade, of sorts
Bernard of Clairvaux had spent most of 1146 and 1147 rounding up the Crusaders of France and lower Germany in response to the recent capture of Edessa, but when it came to the North, the desire to travel all the way to the holy land to recapture a city thousands of miles away just wasn’t there. Bernard was able to convince Pope Eugene III to grant Crusader status to attacks on the pagan Wends occupying the eastern borders of Christendom, with Bernard reportedly saying “with God’s help, they shall be either converted or deleted” mercy was not on the cards.
Prince Nylot was the closest thing the Wends had to a united leader and he knew what was coming. Seeing his best chances of success in an all out attack, Nylot decided to attack deep into Saxon held lands, choosing to attack Wagria in June 1147. The attack on Wagria was a success for Nylot but, it further galvanised the German’s desire to fight. Alongside a Scandinavian fleet that had been assembled and was now harassing the northern shores of todays Germany, the Duke of Saxony, Henry ‘The Lion’ attacked Nylot at Dobin. Nylot knew that he lacked the man power to beat out not only Henry but the Danes under Canute V and Sweyn III (two danish kings who had been fighting a civil war for years) and, a second push from the south but he did what he could, attacking the Danish fleets as they lay in the harbour forcing the bickering Canute and Sweyn to return to their civil war back home.
With Dobin now under siege, Nylot eventually agreed to have the city baptised and thus saved his people and forced the Saxons out of Wendish territory. As with most pagans faced with Christianity, the introduction of symbols and festivals that will have followed such a mass ‘conversion’ wouldn’t have scared the Wends, it is likely that they quickly returned to their pagan ways as soon as they saw the backs of the German invaders.