"This Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated“ - Alexander Nevsky and the Battle of the Neva in 1240

1240 near present-day St Petersburg, Alexander Yaroslavich, then the young Prince of Novgorod, defeated a Swedish army in the Battle of the Neva, earning himself the nickname Alexander Nevsky.
“He was taller than others and his voice reached the people as a trumpet, and his face was like the face of Joseph, whom the Egyptian Pharaoh placed as next to the king after him of Egypt. His power was a part of the power of Samson and God gave him the wisdom of Solomon ... this Prince Alexander: he used to defeat but was never defeated“ (The Second Pskovian Chronicle)

The Russian Symbolist artist Nicholas Roerich’s (1874 – 1947) interpretation of Alexander Nevsky striking Birger Jarl during the Battle of the Neva, using his lance with a two-handed grip, Iranian or Sarmatian-style, like an Eastern Roman clibanarios, more or less a Byzantine knight.

Legend has it that Slavic and Finnish tribes, tired of fighting each other, called a Norman lord from over the sea. He as a foreigner, equally foreign to every local tribe, might bring about peace. The year was 862 and the Norman’s name was Rjurik. His son Igor conquered Kiev and united almost all East Slavic tribes under his rule and their successors, the Rurikids, lorded it over a region between Lviv and Nishni Novgorod and from the Dnepr north to Lake Ladoga and Onega, became Christian in 980 with all of the Rus, as the people were now known, and grew rich on trade with Constantinople and the Baltics. Everything changed though when the Mongols came. Kiev fell in 1240 and what remained of the lands of the Kievan Rus’ became Polish and Lithuanian possessions or small city-state principalities, tributary to the Golden Horde – with one notable exception, Vladimir-Suzdal. They became Mongolian subjects as well, but one of their Rurikid rulers would make history and set the course for the development of future Russia: Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky.

Nicholas Roerich’s imagination of the Rurikid’s arrival: “Guests from Overseas“ 1901 

An echo of the Viking raids of old, disguised as “Northern Crusades”, resounded through Northeastern Europe during the life and times of the scions of the Rurikids and the Rus as well. Targeted were the pagan Slavic and Finnish tribes along the Eastern coast of the Baltics and their hinterland, but the orthodox successors of the Kievan Rus came second. Allegedly, Birger Jarl himself, founder of Stockholm and man behind the throne of the Kingdom of Sweden, led a foray up the river Neva, 120 miles north of Novgorod. Alexander Yaroslavich had become knyaz, prince, of the place in 1236 with Mongol approval and moved his army of burghers and his own druzhina, his personal retinue of professional warriors, to intercept the Swedish invasion of his homelands. The Novgorodians surprised Birger Jarl and his men in dense fog in their camp in a place along the river where today St Petersburg’s outskirts are. And according to the old chronicles, Alexander Yaroslavich met Birger Jarl in single combat, knocked out his eye, won the Battle of the Neva and earned himself the nom de guerre “Nevsky” (of the Neva) and ended the Swedish–Novgorodian Wars for generations. Or so the story goes.

Nicholas Roerich: “Alexander Nevski”, 1942

Sweden’s conflict with Russia dragged on well into the 18th century though and interestingly enough, Swedish sources do not mention an invasion along the Neva in 1240 nor the battle itself and Alexander Nevsky’s main opponent certainly were the Teutonic Knights and not Swedish raiders. The existing Russian sources call the leader of the Swedes Spiridon and mention that he was killed in the battle, along with other leaders and a bishop. Since “Spiridon” does not sound Swedish at all and no person could be found who might have lead the Swedes in the 1240s other than Birger Jarl who conquered Finland eight years after the date of the Battle of Neva, tradition has it that he was the one who face disaster at the Neva. And when his grave at Varnhem Abbey in Västergötland was opened in 2002 a large wound was clearly perceivable on his cranium. Whether Birger Jarl had received the blow at the Neva or somewhere else in one of the many battles he had fought, is not clear of course. And whether or not Alexander Yaroslavich defeated a Swedish army at the Neva – he was not called “Nevsky” in the various chronicles until very much later – or not, his other achievements outshine the one battle anyway and he was revered as a saint soon after his death in 1263 by his people.

And more about the Battle of the Neva on: