The Battle of the Ice - Alexander Nevsky, the Teutonic Knights and an Epochal Movie

5 April 1242, Alexander Nevsky defeated the Teutonic Knights and their Estonian allies in the Battle of the Ice on Lake Peipus, 110 miles southwest of present day St Petersburg.
“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 through 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“ (The Chronicle of Novgorod)

A scene from Sergej Eisenstein’s famous filmography “Alexander Nevsky” (1938) showing an Ordensritter in single combat with Alexander on the eve of Russia’s Great Patriotic War.

The successor states of the Kievan Rus’ in what is now western Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were really between the devil and the deep blue sea during the first half of the 13th century. Not only were the Mongols of the Golden Horde breathing down their necks, about to turn the whole Eastern European world upside down, but the Swedes as well as the Knights of the Teutonic Order had already cast covetous glances on their lands on their north-western borders. In the wake of the Northern Crusades against the pagan Slavic tribes living along the coast of the Baltic Sea, the knights had established a well organised state during the late 1220 and early 1230s, encompassing much of the modern day Baltic states and northern Poland and control of the great rivers to the East, the old Varangian trade routes between Scandinavia, Constantinople and the Mediterranean as well as Asia that once had Lord Novgorod the Great rich beyond the Rurikids’ wildest dreams, were at least as tempting a target as bringing the Orthodox Novgorodians under the Catholic folds of Mother Church.

An imagination of the Battle of of the Ice from
a 16th century "Life of Alexander Nevsky"

And while the situation looked quite bleak for the people of the Republic of Novgorod and the Principality of Vladimir-Suzdal, they began to fight back and had some good fortune in choosing their war leader – the grandson of the illustrious Vsevolod of the Big Nest, aptly named for his 14 children, Alexander Yaroslavich, who had already earned his nom de guerre “Nevsky”, of the Neva, in 1240 during his victory over the Swedes under Birger Jarl and now, two years later, it was the Teutonic Knights’ due. The numbers of their invading army are very probably exaggerated by the Medieval sources, but at least 500 fully armoured and well-drilled Ordensritter under Prince Bishop Hermann of Dorpat together with about a 1.000 Estonian foot against Alexander Nevsky 4.000 men. The Knights charged in a wedge across the ice of the frozen Lake Peipus, wreaked havoc among the Novgorodian centre but foundered on the iced-up steep shore of the lake. Then Alexander let loose his Drushina, his own heavy cavalry, rolled up the Estonians and took Hermann’s knights in the back. Few escaped the deadly encirclement and most of those who could force their way out, broke through the ice in their heavy armour and drowned.

Valentin Serov (1865 - 1911): " Entrance of Alexander Nevsky at Pskov after the Battle on the Ice " 

The Teutonic Order made peace with Novgorod in the summer of 1242, establishing the River Narva as a permanent border and effectively ending the order’s expansion into the lands of the Rus, to this day the approximate boundary line of the eastern and western churches. Wisely deciding to submit to the Great Khan’s rule in the east, Alexander Nevsky had lain the foundation for the Russian Empire and the Mongol overlords awarded Alexander’s son Daniil Aleksandrovich with the then still obscure Principality of Moscow, while Alexander Nevsky was made a saint by the Eastern Church in 1547 as one of the pivotal figures of Eastern European Medieval history.

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