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Lithuania and Britain: an entwined history

Britain and the Baltic at the time of Wulfstan’s voyage to Witland

Although Lithuania and Britain are over 1600 km apart, the two have a surprisingly rich history of contact that long pre-dates the settlement of over 100,000 Lithuanians in Britain (as recorded in the 2011 Census). While the earliest mention of the name of Lithuania dates to 1009, the first recorded English contact with the Baltic peoples of ‘Lithuania Minor’ (Prussia) may have occurred in the 9th century, and was recorded by none other than King Alfred the Great. Alfred added to his translation of the Histories of Orosius into Old English an account of a voyage into the Baltic by a man named Wulfstan, who set out from the Danish port of Hedeby, but was probably English. In the era when travel was considerably faster by sea than by land, Britain’s eastern seaboard was very much part of the Baltic world; the Angles themselves, the Germanic tribe who ended up giving their name to England, came from an east-facing region of southern Denmark on the Baltic littoral.

To the merchant Wulfstan, Prussia was ‘Witland’ or ‘Estand’ and its people were ‘Estlanders’ (not to be confused with the Estonians, a Finno-Ugric people living much further to the north). Wulfstan’s destination was the port of Truso, near present-day Elbing in northeast Poland by the lagoon of the River Vistula. In the 9th century this was a Prussian territory inhabited by pagan speakers of the Western Baltic Old Prussian language. Wulfstan was intrigued by the Prussians’ funeral practices and went into quite some detail about them:

The Weissel is a very large river, and near it lie Witland and Weonodland. Witland belongs to the people of Estland; and out of Weonodland flows the river Weissel, which empties itself afterwards into Estmere. This lake, called Estmere, is about fifteen miles broad. Then runs the Ilfing east (of the Weissel) into Estmere, from that lake on the banks of which stands Truso. These two rivers come out together into Estmere, the Ilfing east from Eastland, and the Weissel south from Weonodland. Then the Weissel deprives the Ilfing of its name, and, flowing from the west part of the lake, at length empties itself northward into the sea, whence this point is called the Weissel-mouth. This country called Estland is very extensive, and there are in it many towns, and in every town is a king. There is a great quantity of honey and fish; and even the king and the richest men drink mare’s milk, whilst the poor and the slaves drink mead. There is a vast deal of war and contention amongst the different tribes of this nation. There is no ale brewed amongst the Estlanders, but they have mead in profusion.

There is also this custom with the Estlanders, that when anyone dies the corpse continues unburnt with the relations and friends for at least a month, sometimes two; and the bodies of kings and illustrious men, according to their respective wealth, lie sometimes even for half a year before the corpse is burned, and the body continues above ground in the house, during which time drinking and sports are prolonged till the day on which the body is consumed. Then, when it is carried to the funeral pile, the substance of the deceased, which remains after these drinking festivities and sports, is divided into five or six heaps; sometimes into more, according to the proportion of what he happens to be worth. These heaps are so disposed that the largest heap shall be about one mile from the town; and so gradually the smaller at lesser intervals, till all the wealth is divided, so that the least heap shall be nearest the town where the corpse lies.

Then all those are to be summoned together who have the fleetest horses in the land, for a wager of skill, within the distance of five or six miles from these heaps; and they all ride a race toward the substance of the deceased. Then comes the man that has the winning horse toward the first and largest heap, and so each after other, till the whole is seized upon. He procures, however, the least heap who takes that which is nearest the town; and then everyone rides away with his share, and keeps the whole of it. On account of this custom fleet horses in that country are wonderfully dear. When the wealth of the deceased has been thus exhausted, then they carry out his corpse from the house and burn it, together with his weapons and clothes; and generally they spend his whole substance by the long continuance of the body within the house, together with what they lay in heaps along the road, which the strangers run for, and take away. “It is also an established custom with the Estlanders that the dead bodies of every tribe or family shall be burned, and if any man finds a single bone unconsumed, they shall be fined to a considerable amount. These Estlanders also have the power of producing artificial cold; and it is thus the dead body continues so long above ground without putrefying, on which they produce this artificial cold; and, though a man should set two vessels full of ale or of water, they contrive that either shall be completely frozen over; and this equally the same in the summer as in the winter.

Wulfstan’s interest in Baltic funeral rites was mirrored by other authors, and many details of Wulfstan’s account continued to be quoted by commentators on Prussia and Lithuania into the 16th century and beyond.

The lagoon of the River Vistula, once home to the Prussian people

The next English author to show an interest in the Baltic region was Bartholomaeus Anglicus (‘Bartholomew the Englishman’), an English Franciscan scholar in 13th-century Paris who, towards the end of his life, was nominated to the Bishopric of Łuków in eastern Poland. In around 1240 Bartholomew wrote about ‘Lectonia’ (Lithuania), ‘Livonia’, ‘Sambia’ and ‘Semigallia’ in De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’). Bartholomew described Lithuania as ‘marshy in many places and very forested … very full of sheep and wild animals’, while the Lithuanians themselves were ‘warlike and ferocious’. It is unclear where Bartholomew obtained his information about the Baltic nations.

Just as the English were interested in Lithuania, so Britain came to play a key role in the national myth the Lithuanians began to confabulate as they rose to dominate late medieval Central Europe. Late medieval and early modern Lithuanians became convinced they were the descendants of the Romans, since they noticed striking similarities between their language and Latin (a phenomenon I wrote about in a recent article for the Latin journal Vox Latina). In reality, of course, these similarities had nothing to do with Latin and derive from the common descent of both Latin and Lithuanian from an Indo-European ancestral language; but in one version of the origin myth the Lithuanians created for themselves, their ancestors arrived on the eastern shore of the Baltic in a number of ships lost in a storm after Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain, loaded with Roman soldiers and their British captives. The Lithuanian language was Latin, degraded and corrupted by the admixture of the language of the British captives and the influence of neighbouring Slavic peoples.

Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55 BCE

Lithuania traded with medieval England, particularly in amber and honey, but England also had a much less positive relationship with Lithuania during the Baltic Crusades, when a number of English knights served as mercenaries alongside the Teutonic Knights, whose purpose was to subdue the Lithuanians and forcibly convert them to the Christian faith. The Knights were singularly unsuccessful in doing this (and were eventually defeated decisively by the Lithuanians at the Battle of Grunwald/Žalgiris in 1410); the eventual conversion of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania to Catholicism in 1387 was a political decision to do with their alignment themselves with the Kingdom of Poland.

Chaucer’s Knight

In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the knight as someone who had campaigned in the so-called Northern Crusades:

 

Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne

Aboven alle nacions in Pruce;

In Lettow hadde he reysed, and in Ruce,

No Cristen man so ofte of his degree.

 

In modern English:

 

Many times had he sat in the place of honour,

Above all nations in Prussia;

He had campaigned in Lithuania, and in Rus’,

No Christian man of his rank so frequently.

Henry Bolingbroke (1367-1413), reigned as Henry IV of England 1399-1413

While it is difficult to estimate the number of English knights who campaigned in Lithuania, the most famous was surely Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby (1367-1413) who later became King Edward IV in 1399. Left in the political wilderness during the reign of his cousin Richard II, Henry sailed into the Baltic in 1390 with two ships and up to 80 retainers. After jousting at Königsberg, he made his way through the ‘wyldrenesse’ of Samogitia to rendezvous with Vytautas, who was in rebellion against his cousin Jogaila. Since both men were now nominally Christians, the actions of the Teutonic Knights in allying themselves with Vytautas in an internecine conflict between Lithuanian princes could hardly be called a Crusade in any meaningful sense.

Nevertheless, Henry was involved in a battle near Kaunas with Jogaila’s regent Skirigaila in which many Lithuanian nobles (and some of Henry’s English knights) were killed. Nevertheless, Skirigaila fled the field, and Henry’s longbowmen were supposed to have been critical to the outcome of this battle.

Vilnius Castle, which English knights failed to capture during the siege of Vilnius in September-October 1390

Henry and the Teutonic Knights caught up with Skirigaila at Vilnius, where they laid siege to the city. On 4 September Henry’s English knights managed to capture the Crooked Castle, the outermost of Vilnius’s defensive forts, planting the flag of St George on the parapet. However, the knights failed to capture any of Vilnius’s other defences – including the castle that still stands sentinel over Vilnius today. The Teutonic Knights finally gave up on the siege on 7 October, but the Battle of the Crooked Castle was received as a great English victory. Henry captured and brought home a number of Lithuanian captives, but he seems to have let most of them go apart from two boys named John Ralph and Ingelard of Prussia, who joined his household at Hertford Castle.

John Ralph and Ingelard of Prussia were not the only Lithuanian immigrants in late medieval England, since a Lithuanian was apparently involved in England’s most technologically innovative industry between 1475 and 1483 – printing. John Lettou, whose surname is the Middle English word for Lithuania, worked as a printer of indulgences in London alongside William Caxton, although it is unclear whether Lettou was actually born in Lithuania or whether he was the descendant of Lithuanian immigrants.

Chylinski’s pamphlet in English advertising his translation of the Bible into Lithuanian (1659)

Both England and Lithuania were convulsed by the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Lithuanian elite, even while the population at large remained largely pagan, became divided between Catholics, Calvinists and Lutherans. One of the Calvinists, Samuel Boguslaus Chylinski, sought refuge in England in 1657 and began translating the Bible into Lithuanian at Oxford. It was thus that the first Lithuanian Bible came to be printed in England. Chylinski published an English pamphlet advertising his work, and was successful in persuading King Charles II to issue letters patent on 12 July 1661 authorising the collection of funds to support the translation of the Bible into Lithuanian. The New Testament was printed between 1660 and 1662 but Chylinski’s Old Testament languished in manuscript form in the British Library and has only recently been edited and published.

The House of the Scottish Merchants in Kedainiai

In the 17th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, in personal union with Poland since 1569, was a prosperous and appealing place. Lithuania was by far the largest country in Europe, stretching from the shores of the Baltic to the shores of the Black Sea and taking in present-day Lithuania, Belarus and large parts of Ukraine, as well as parts of what is now northeastern Poland. Scotland, by contrast, was struggling economically in the 1630s, with the result that a large number of Scottish immigrants settled in Poland and Lithuania over the course of about a century. While most of the Scots settled in Poland, there was also a small but influential community of Scottish merchants in the Lithuanian town of Kedainiai, with Scottish surnames surviving in the area well into the eighteenth century. However, the Northern War at the end of the 17th century, in which Sweden inflicted unparalleled devastation on Lithuania, decimated the Scottish community and caused at least some of the Scots to return home to Scotland.

There is, of course, much more to say about the intertwined histories of Britain and Lithuania, but these are a few important snapshots of that history between the 9th and 17th centuries.

 

2 comments on “Lithuania and Britain: an entwined history

  1. The West Laine Wanderer
    June 17, 2020

    Very interesting! I did not know a lot of this history. Thank you for teaching me! Greetings from London.

  2. KJ Porterfield
    June 20, 2020

    Having ancestors from both the British Isles and Lithuania I was aware there was an early connection, just no details.
    Interesting.

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This entry was posted on June 17, 2020 by .
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