THE BATTLE OF THE ICE - April 5th - 1242
The Battle of
the Ice (Russian: Ледовое побоище, Ledovoye
poboish'ye; German: Schlacht auf dem Eise; Estonian: Jäälahing; Latvian: Ledus kauja), also known as the Battle
of Lake Peipus (German: Schlacht auf dem Peipussee; Russian: битва на Чудском
озере, bitva na Chudskom ozere), was a battle between the Republic of Novgorod and the Livonian
branch of the Teutonic Knights (whose army consisted mostly of Estonians) on April 5, 1242, at Lake Peipus. The battle is
notable for its having been fought largely on top of the frozen lake.
The battle was a significant defeat sustained
by Roman Catholic crusaders during the Northern Crusades, which were directed against pagans and Eastern Orthodox Christians
rather than Muslims in the Holy Land. The crusaders' defeat in the battle marked the end of their campaigns against the Orthodox
Novgorod Republic and other Russian territories for the next century.
Hoping to exploit the Russians' weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions,
the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in the autumn of
1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled to the city 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky, whom
they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye
from the crusaders. In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south
of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local
Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander's forces by the narrow strait that connects the northern and southern parts of
Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe) on April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own
choosing, retreated in efforts to draw the often over-confident Crusaders to the frozen lake.
The crusader forces likely numbered around 4,000. Most of them were probably
Estonians (Chudes). The Russian force in contrast numbered around 5,000 soldiers: Alexander and his brother Andrei's bodyguards
(druzhina), who numbered around 1,000, plus the militia of Novgorod. According
to contemporary Russian chronicles, after hours of hand-to-hand fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his
archers to enter the battle. The knights by this time were exhausted from the constant fighting and struggling with the slippery
surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh
Russian cavalry made them run for their lives. When the knights attempted to rally themselves at the far side of the lake
the thin ice started to collapse, under the weight of their heavy armour, and many knights drowned.In 1983, a revisionist
view proposed by historian John I. L. Fennell argues that the battle was not as important, nor as large, as has sometimes
been portrayed. Fennell claimed that most of the Teutonic Knights were by that time engaged elsewhere in the Baltic. He also
states that the apparent low casualties endured by the knights according to their own sources are an indicative of the small
magnitude of the encounter.
historian Alexander Uzhankov, who cited a number of authors and primary sources, suggested that Fennell distorted the picture
by ignoring many historical facts and documents. In order to stress the importance of the battle, he cites two papal bulls
of Gregory IX, promulgated in 1233 and 1237, which called for a crusade to protect Christianity in Finland against her neighbours.
The first bull explicitly mentions Russia. The kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and the Teutonic Order built up an alliance in
June 1238, under the auspicies of Danish king Valdemar II. They assembled the larger western cavalry force of their time.
Another point mentioned by Uzhakov is the 1243 treaty between Novgorod and the Teutonic Order, where the knights declined
all claims over Russian lands. Uzhakov also emphasizes, regarding the scale of battle, that for each knight deployed on the
field there were eight to 30 combatants counting squires, archers and servants.
According to the Novgorod First Chronicle, Prince Alexander and all the men of Novgorod
drew up their forces by the lake, at Uzmen, by the Raven's Rock; and the Germans and the Estonians rode at them, driving themselves
like a wedge throughout their army. And there was a great slaughter of Germans and Estonians... they fought with them during
the pursuit on the ice seven versts short of the Subol [north-western] shore. And there fell a countless number of Estonians,
and 400 of the Germans, and they took fifty with their hands and they took them to Novgorod. According to the Livonian Order's Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, written years later, The [Russians] had
many archers, and the battle began with their bold assault on the king's men [Danes]. The brothers' banners were soon flying
in the midst of the archers, and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then
the Brothers' army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily sixty men for every
one German knight. The Brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down. Some of those from Dorpat escaped
from the battle, and it was their salvation that they fled. Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured.
The legacy of the battle, and its decisiveness, rests in that it halted the
eastward expansion of the Teutonic Order and established a permanent border line of the Narva River and Lake Peipus dividing
Eastern Orthodoxy from West Catholicism. The knights' defeat at the hands of Alexander's forces prevented the crusaders from
retaking Pskov, the linchpin of their eastern crusade. The Novgorodians succeeded in defending Russian territory, and the
German crusaders never mounted another serious challenge eastward. Alexander was canonised as a saint in the Russian Orthodox
Church in 1574.