The Emergence of Lithuania

Histories of Lithuania generally begin with very vague statements about the arrival of the various tribes in the area of the Baltic sometime between the seventh and second centuries BC. The truth is that very little is known about the origin of these tribes and nothing at all about the timing of their appearance.

The first historical reference to Lithuania is dated to the year 1009 and appears in the German Annals of Quedlinburg but almost nothing is known of the early history of the country. Part of the problem is that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to practice a pre-Christian religion, and in fact remained resolutely pagan until the late fourteenth century. As such Lithuania stood outside the pale of Christendom and little in the way of records survive regarding its early history.

The Monarchs of Lithuania

Its rulers were known under the title of kunigaikshtis which is variously translated as either "grand prince" or "grand duke" and with Lithuania itself labelled as either a Grand Principality or a Grand Duchy. 'Grand Duke' appears to the most common, although Lithuania itself is most often referred to as a 'Principality'.

Sometime before the year 1219 one Ringaudas or Ryngold, who it seems was a chief of one of the Lithuanian clans and achieved a certain dominance over the other tribes in the area, and therefore is claimed by some sources as the first ruler of Lithuania. The further names of Zivinbudas and Dausprungas are mentioned as his successors but nothing it appears is known of them.


Mindaugas (also known variously as Mindowe, Mendowg and Mendog) is the first truly historical ruler of Lithuania who, during the years between 1236 and 1263, united the various Lithuanian tribes and established what is regarded as the first state of Lithuania. The main impetus for this was the threat posed by the Order of Teutonic Knights who had established themselves in Livonia and regarded it as their solemn duty to evangelize the pagan Lithuanians at the point of a sharp sword.

Mindaugas made various concession to the Order, including the surrender of territory, and it was in order to placate the Order and win its support that Mindaugas became a Christian and agreed to be baptised. He was even sent a crown by Pope Innocent IV and was crowned king by the Bishop of Kulm, in presence of the Master of the Teutonic Order at Novograd Litovsk in the year 1252 or 1253. Mindaugas therefore became the first and only true king in Lithuanian history.

From Mindaugas to Gediminas

Mindaugas was however assassinated by his nephew Treniota or Traniate in 1263 who declared himself to be the new Grand Duke only to be killed himself the following year by Mindaugas' supporters who installed his son Vaisvilkas as ruler.

Vaisvilkas retired to a monastery four years later in 1267 and abdicated in favour of his brother-in-law to Shvarno or Svarnas, but was killed a few months later by Shvarno's brother Lev who felt that his merits had been overlooked.

Two years later in 1269 Traidenis came to power, in circumstances that are not entirely clear but imply that he was a rival of the Mindaugas family. Traidenis spent his time fighting off the attentions of the Teutonic Order and won victories over them at the battles of Karusa and Aizkraukle. In 1281 Traidenis died and was succeeded by Daumantas, who later died in battle in 1285 and was succeeded by one Butigeidis.

Butigeidis ruled until around the year 1291 when he was succeeded by his brother Butvydas, and Butvydas was in turn succeeded by his son Vytenis in around 1295. Vytenis appears to have fought the usual battles against the Order until he died, probably in battle sometime at the end of the year 1315.


Gediminas was the son of Skalmantas, brother of the previous dukes Butvydas and Butigeidis and therefore cousin of Vytenis. The years between the rule of Mindaugas and Gediminas were relatively chaotic and Gediminas spent much of his time re-establishing the Lithunaian state and gradually expanding its influence eastwards over the various Slavic provinces of Russia as far as the Black Sea.

It is Gediminas or Gedymin that gets the credit for the foundation of Vilnius in 1323 and who also took the important step of concluding a treaty with Poland in 1325, giving his daughter Aldona in marriage to Casimir the Polish crown prince and later Kazimierz The Great.

This was just as well as in 1329 John the Blind the king of Bohemia, united with the Order to invade Lithuania but was prevented from making any signifcant gains by the intervention of Poland (courtesy of the previously agreed treaty). The Order however returned to the offensive in 1336 taking control the stategically important Pilenai Castle after a long siege; the following year they constructed the castle of Bayerburg at the Nemunas River, intending this to be their base for the conquest of Lithuania. But Gediminas rallied the Lithunanians, destroyed Bayerburg, and drove the Order back to Livonia.

The sons of Gedyminas

Gedyminas had seven sons and on his death in 1341 Lithuania was shared out between them. One son Jaunutis received the capital of Vilnius and is therefore regarded as the nearest thing to the grand duke at the time, but two other sons Algirdas and Kestutis soon became the more powerful.

In particular Kestutis, who was forced to defend the western borders from the Order, became unhappy with the lack of support from Jaunutis; therefore in 1345 he seized control of Vilnius and handed it over to Algirdas. Together Algirdas and Kestutis set about re-establishing the principality of Lithuania, deflecting a planned invasion by Bohemia and Hungary as they did so.

From 1349 to 1366 Lithuania fought a long border war with Poland and between 1362 and 1382 also faced a long sequence of attacks from their traditional enemy the Order of Teutonic Knights who launched over seventy assaults on the country during that period.

Jogaila and Vytautas

When Algirdas died in 1377 he was succeeded by his son Jogaila or Jagiello. Kestutis initally supported his nephew Jogaila but became disenchanted after discovering that Jogaila had dealt with the threat from the Order by concluding a secret treaty with them. Kestutis rebelled and seized control of Vilnius in 1381, but after a brief civil war he was persuaded to enter into peace negotiations with Jogaila, when he was taken prisoner and then executed.

Jogaila was therefore restored to his position as Grand Duke but Kestutis' son Vytautas was able to escape and fled to the Teutonic Knights and led an army against Jogaila in 1383. This forced Jogaila to make peace with Vytautas and restore him to his father's lands. In any event Jogaila became more interested in negotiations with Poland, and in 1385 announced his betrothal to Jadwiga daughter of Louis the Great and queen of Poland and therefore became king of Poland in 1386. Part of the price he had to pay for the crown of Poland was his willingness to embrace the Christian faith and so he was baptised and took as his baptismal name Wladyslaw.

It was Jogaila's intention to unite all his Lithuanian and Russian territories and the kingdom of Poland forever, but whilst he was occupied in Poland he appointed his brother Skirgaila, to be his vicegerent in Lithuania, and ordered all Lithuanians to accept the Catholic faith. However the idea of union was not to everyone's tate and in 1389 Vytautas instigated an unsucessful uprising against Jogaila but managed to attract sufficient support from the Lithuanian nobility to force Jogaila to negotoiate. In 1392 they concluded an agreement at Ostrow which left Vytautas as the effective ruler of Lithuania.

Vytautas appears to have been determined to establish the independence of Lithuania in the face of his cousins concept of union with Poland but he suffered a catastrophic defeat against the Tartars at the battle of the river Vorksla on 12th August 1399, when he barely escaped with his own life. The defeat forced Vytautas to rely more heavily on the support of Jogaila and in 1401 he reluctantly agreed that Lithuania's independence would formally end with his death.

Vytautas is however remembered as Vytautas the Great if only because in 1410 he and Jogaila combined forces to inflict a serious defeat on the Order of Teutonic Knights at the battle of Grünwald (aka the battle of Tannenberg) that essentially ended the Order's power in the Baltic.

After Vytautas

Some sources suggest that Lithuania was annexed to the Crown of Poland following Vytautas' death in 1432; others name two further Grand Dukes in Swidrygiello and Zygmunt. But all are agreed that from the time of Casimir IV onwards the rulers of Poland and Lithuania are identical, particularly after the Union of Lublin of 1569 that created the Commonwealth of Both Nations.

Lithuania continued as part of the Commonwealth until the 7th January 1795 when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partioned for the third and final time and Lithuania was incorporated into Russia. The Russian Tsars added the title of 'Grand Prince of Lithuania' to their collection and Lithunania remained as part of the Russian Empire until the conclusion of World War I in 1917 when it gained its independence.

For a brief time during the year 1918 a gentleman by the name of Wilhelm Herzog von Urach, Graf von Württemberg, appears to have been proclaimed as king Mindaugas II. However on the 2nd November 1918 the Republic of Lithuania came into being, and the services of Wilhelm Herzog were dispensed with. This republic survived until 1940 when it was annexed by the Soviet Union where it remained (subject to German occupation during World War II) until the 6th September 1991 when the modern Republic of Lithuania was born.

One should really mention the name of the British born, now resident in Australia, Prince Roman II, who claims to be the current Grand Duke of Lithuania and who has assumed the responsibility of re-establishing the 'Principality of Lithuania'.

It appears that you can apply to be installed as a Knight or Lady of The Royal Lithuanian Order, or to become a member of The Most Honourable Order of The White Knights or even The Most Honourable Order of Saint Andrew.


Semi-mythological Grand Dukes

Historical Grand Dukes

Thereafer see Monarchs of Poland until 1795, and Monarchs of Russia until 1917.


A Chronology of Early Medieval Lithuania at
The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Lithuania at for the information on Mindaugas II and for the information on HRH Prince Roman II

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