The Thirteenth-Century Crusade Against Novgorod

            Beginning in the thirteenth century the Swedes attempted to continue their expansion to the east into the territory of the Lapp people and the Orthodox Russians of Novgorod.   They harnessed the rhetoric of Crusade as they expanded to the east to gain more control of the Lapp people and exploited the fur trade, hunting, and fishing of the indigenous people.

            It was not just economic concerns that animated the Swedes and Norwegians to expand to control the far-northern trade, religion played a role.   The Catholic Swedes sought to extend the Latin Church’s influence to the east and north while the Orthodox Russians sought to do the same with their brand of Christianity.   Prior to the thirteenth century this impulse had went hand in hand with normal expansion, religious affiliation went hand in hand with political control, indeed religion facilitated control of subject peoples.[1]  Religious uniformity helped mask the differences among the various ethnicities that occupied the far north.

            The Swedes had long had an interest in controlling the trade routes through Finland and beyond.   They had tried to capitalize on the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, which devastated the Eastern Orthodox populations of Pskov and Novgorod who were the principal rivals of the Swedes.   The Swedes invaded in 1240 with hopes of capturing more territory from Novgorod but were defeated in a battle near the river Neva by the celebrated Russian prince, Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263).[2]  This failed invasion was billed as a Crusade by the papal legate.

The Swedes, despite occasional reverses were the most insistent and successful at extending their influence to the east.   In 1295, the Swedish King Birger (1280-1321) finished construction of a new castle at Viborg and announced that he had converted the Karelians to the Christian faith.[3]  Viborg was in a strategic position to control the trade that moved through the Gulf of Finland and its position gave great advantages to the Swedes.

            What is generally thought of as the Crusade against Novgorod was called in 1347 by King Magnus II of Sweden (1317-1377) who was also King of Norway having inherited both kingdoms when he was only two years old in 1319.[4]  It took Magnus several years to gain effective control of his kingdom once he came of age.   In the 1330’s Magnus wanted to expand his realm and Christianity to the east and found support for this position from his cousin St. Bridget (1303-1373) a famous holy woman.[5]  She saw crusading in the same vein as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a means of allowing the knightly class to exercise its warlike skills in a redemptive manner.   She supported the Crusade against Novgorod as a way to gain more souls for Christianity.   In 1343 after a failed war against the Danes Bridget criticized the king for not waging war against the pagans to the east.[6]

            The Crusade began in an odd manner; King Magnus sailed to Finland in 1347, and sent an embassy to Novgorod to propose a conference or debate about the worthiness of Catholicism versus the Eastern Orthodox faith.   The Novgorodians rebuffed this offer and in July of 1348 when the crusading army reached Viborg on the Gulf of Finland, they were met by a Russian envoy to which Magnus again broached the religious issue saying, “Adopt my faith, or I will march against you with my whole force.”[7]  This caused the Russian delegation to flee and the Swedes hurried after them to the fortress of Orekhov at the mouth of the Neva River.

            As the Swedes advanced, they offered the natives the choice of death or conversion.   The Russians were disorganized and their Lithuanian allies could not assist them because of the Teutonic Knights.   The Swedes besieged and took Orekhov after a four-month siege with the fortress falling on 4 August 1348.   After Orekhov, Magnus returned to Sweden instead of continuing on to attack the city of Novgorod itself leaving only a small garrison at Orekhov.

            Novgorod, in concert with Pskov attacked the recently won fortress shortly after Magnus left.  The Pskovians went home when winter set in but Novgorod held on and retook the fortress in February 1349.[8]  Magnus could not respond to Novgorod’s recapture of the forest because the Black Death reached Sweden in 1349 and the manpower was not available to respond to the loss of Orekhov given the scope of the Black Death’s effects in Sweden.

            The Novgorod Crusade was a failure for several reasons but the biggest were the failure of King Magnus to press his advantage after the fall of Orekhov, his quick return to Sweden, and his negligence in failing to garrison the new fortress adequately.   Perhaps he did not have the ability to provide a large enough garrison but if this was so then he should not have attacked in the first place.   The end result of the Crusade was loss of life on both sides and no measurable change in the strategic situation of either side though the Swedes had show they could effectively project power into the region.

[1] Christiansen, Eric. The Northern Crusades. pp. 181-182

[2] Madden, Thomas, F. ed. The Crusades: An Illustrated History, p. 128

[3] Christiansen. p. 120

[4] Ibid. p. 185

[5] Ibid. p. 190

[6] Lind, J. “A Swedish Crusader King as Russian Orthodox Saint on the Valamo Archipelago?”. 

[7] Christiansen. p. 193

[8] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “The Thirteenth-Century Crusade Against Novgorod”

  1. Can you possibly help me? My son is supposed to identify the routes of all the crusades 1-13 and the people’s and children’s crusades. We’ve located 1-8 but not thhe rest.
    Any helpwouldbe greatly appreciated!

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