Lithuanian statehood: from past to future
Login / Register
> Home > A review of digitized documents: historical context and sources > The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 13–18th century

 The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 13–18th century



Establishment of a State and Pagan Period in Lithuania 

Annals of Quedlinburg is the first known historical source to mention the name of Lithuania in 1009. Statehood of Lithuania has essentially become relevant only from the middle of the 13th century when Duke Mindaugas has managed to consolidate his power among relatives and other members of Lithuanian nobility. In the treaty between Dukes of Volhynia (Voluinė) and Lithuania in 1219, Mindaugas is referred to as only the fourth of the five elder Lithuanian Dukes. Nonetheless, Mindaugas was able to expel competitors and to become autocratic ruler thanks to favourable situation in the family (death of an older brother Dausprungas and infancy of his successors), as well as to his personal abilities. He distinguished his position by relating to the rulers of neighbouring countries, rather than the powerful people in his own state. He has married off his only known daughter to a son of Duke of Halych Daniel, known by the name of Shvarn. 

Mindaugas has achieved his most significant victory by diplomatic means, rather than by using guns in a battlefield. Mindaugas received baptism in 1251 under mediation of Andrew of Stirland, a master of the Livonian Order, and was crowned as a king of Lithuania two years later in 1253, thus guaranteeing an international acknowledgement both of the state of Lithuania and of him as of a sovereign ruler of the state. Mesh with the Christian-Western world was not meant to last long, as Lithuania turned back to paganism for longer than a century after the assassination of King Mindaugas in 1263. 

Apostasy in Christianity for Lithuania was far from losing its statehood. Although Lithuania has surely been in upheaval after the death of Mindaugas with a change of three different rulers (Treniota (1263–1264,) Vaišelga, the son of Mindaugas (1264–1267) and Traidenis (1268–1282)) over a period of five years, but once Lithuanian statehood emerged, it has never faded away. 

Many portraits of Lithuanian rulers and photographs of statues of some of the rulers are stored within the funds of Vytautas the Great War Museum (hereafter – VDKM) and you can view them in this website. These are the works of Vilius Jomantas, Laura Šlapelienė, Vladas Didžiokas, Juozas Janulis and other artists. This iconographic material is admittedly not genuine. It only partly represents the appearance of Grand Dukes of Lithuania. These works of the 19th–20th century Lithuanian painters and sculptors not only include portraits and sculptures of mythologized rulers of the 13th–15th centuries[1], but also high quality copies of portraits of Lithuanian Grand Dukes painted in the 16th–18th centuries[2]. These portraits are well-known, because portrait genre became widespread in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (hereafter – the GDL) since the 16th century thanks to the Renaissance art and has been subject to patronage in particular by the Grand Lithuanian Dukes (hereafter – GLD).Since the end of the 13th century, new dynasty established itself in Lithuania, which was seemingly unrelated to Mindaugas and was subsequently named Gediminids (Gediminaičiai). Although Gediminas (1316–1341) was not the first representative of the dynasty, but his political foresight made him exceptional in respect of the predecessors. Establishment of relationship with the Byzantine Empire was presumably initiated by him. Gediminas has also invited settlers from the Western Europe to arrive in Lithuania. For this purpose, he sent letters to Pope, German cities, Dominicans and Franciscans of province of Saxony, in order to raise economic and military potential of the state with a help of settlers arriving from the Western Europe. Such resources were mandatory in order to repulse the aggression of the German Order that has been affecting Lithuania since the end of the 13th century, as well as to carry out further expansion to the East. 

Military Order of German monks moved to the Baltics from Palestine in 1226 following the invitation from Konrad, the Duke of Masovia, and subsequently has become one of the most powerful forces in the region. Primary goal of the German Order was Christianisation of pagans, but later it has gotten perverted. Power of the German Order has been broken in the beginning of the 15th century. This victory has been partly achieved during the Christianization of Lithuania, when Jogaila (GLD 1377–1381, 1382–1401), the Supreme Duke (1401–1434), married Hedwig (Jadvyga), the queen of Poland, and thus became the King of Poland (KP 1386–1434). Then the Order was deprived of its main excuse to be at war with Lithuania. The potency of the Order was crushed by the joint Lithuanian and Polish army forces during the Battle of Grunwald (Žalgiris) in 1410. After the defeat in the Battle of Grunwald, the German Order was not able to rebuild its lost power, since it has lost support from the Western Europe, which has experienced decline in the beginning of the 15th century. 

The Battle of Grunwald has become an important commemorative place in the history of Lithuania. This and other battles have been widely memorialized in historical pictorial art of Lithuania [3]. VDKM stores a photograph[4] of the copy of the painting “Grunwald Battle” (“Žalgirio mūšis”) by Jan Matejko, the Polish foremost painter of the 19th century, painted by Ignas Rudolfas, as well as photographs of sketches of the Battle of Grunwald created by Tade Styka, a follower of J. Matejko[5]

State of Lithuania started to look towards East even before the war with the German Order. Expansion to the East has led to the birth of the GDL, which included not only the territories of the Pagan (Christian afterwards) Lithuania, but also the world of Orthodox Rus'. Ruled by Vaišelga, the son of King Mindaugas, Navahrudak (Naugardukas) was one of the first to fall under the influence of Lithuania. With the lapse of time, particularly during the dynastic weddings and military campaigns of Gediminids, in the period of 13th–14th centuries Lithuania has annexed lands of Brest, Minsk, Polotsk, Vitebsk, Lutsk, Kiev, Bryansk and other lands. Smolensk was attached to the GDL at the latest – at the beginning of the 15th century, during the rule of LGD Vytautas. These territories were directly and unconditionally incorporated into the main state. Each duchy or separate land had a high level of independence. The change of local ruling system used to be slow and gradual. Ruling position used to be taken by dukes of Lithuanian descent (Gediminids), who have followed the “game” rules set by the local people by receiving Orthodox baptism. 


Christianization of Lithuania and Beginning of Modernization of the State 

Process of modernization and centralization of the state has accelerated only in 1387, after the Pagan Lithuania adopted Western Christianity. Christianisation of 1387 marked yet one another stage of the state of Lithuania – development of close relations with the Kingdom of Poland. After becoming the ruler of Lithuania and Poland, Jogaila, the grandson of Gediminas, has initiated the rise of Jagiellonians (Jogailaičiai). During the period of 1490–1526, representatives of the dynasty have ruled Lithuania, Poland, Czechia (Czech Republic) and Hungary at one time. However, Jagiellonians had a rough ride in their homeland Lithuania. With Jogaila’s departure to Poland, Lithuania has faced a void in authority. Jogaila’s cousin Vytautas seized the opportunity by holding an exceptional position in the GDL and Jogaila himself was obliged to recognize that. Particularly characteristic to the historiography of the interwar period, GLD Vytautas was endowed with the epithet of the Grand Duke, since during his rule the boundaries of the State of Lithuania have reached the greatest extent – from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Black Sea in the Southeast. 

Lithuanian historical self-consciousness mythologizes the fact that Vytautas "watered" his horse at the Black Sea. Such image is displayed in the photograph of the painting “Vytautas the Great at the Black Sea” (“Vytautas Didysis prie Juodųjų jūrų”) [6] by J. Mackevičius. 

GLD Vytautas not only has expanded, but also centralized and modernized the state. Voivodeships (vaivadijos), new type territorial-administrative units, have been created and contained smaller units – powiats (pavietai) and volosts (valsčiai). At first, they have spread in ethnic Lithuanian lands, the core of the state. First Voivodeships of Vilnius and Trakai were established in 1413. Such administrative division has been kept all throughout the territory of the GDL during the period of 15th–16th centuries. Duchy, rather than voivodeship, ruled by an Elder has been established only in Samogitia due to peculiarity of its internal development, since this territory belonged to the German Order during the period of 14th–15th centuries and was returned to the GDL only after signing the Treaty of Melno in 1422. 

Administrative division of the GDL, alternation of the state boundaries and network of voivodeship centres, other cities and small towns, estates, rivers and roads are represented in the cartography. Map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania released by Nicholas Christopher Radziwill “the Orphan” (Mykolas Kristupas Radvil Našlaitėlis) is considered as the first and benchmark cartographic work in the GDL[7]. This map was not the first to depict the GDL. VDKM also stores the Atlas of Gerardus Mercator, which was released a bit earlier, in 1595, and also contained a map of the GDL[8]. Undoubtedly, the information provided in such maps cannot be followed blindly, since they were meant not only for representation of the real geographic environment and network of rivers and roads, but also for promotion of the state and its objectives. For instance, although territories of the current Ukraine were transferred to Poland on the eve of the Union of Lublin in 1569, but the map designed by “the Orphan” in 1613 attributed these territories to the GDL, presumably as a political aspiration. Christianization of Lithuania not only determined an acceleration of the state centralization process, but has also become a catalyst for emergence of new phenomena within the country which laid the foundation for social and cultural changes. The reception of baptism in 1387 resulted in rapid development of writing, local chronicle tradition and written law. 

Written documents, letters and historiography became widely used by the noble class, which has received the rights to partial immunity along with the baptism. In this very year, KP and GLD Jogaila has granted privileges for the noble persons guaranteeing title ownership to the patrimonial lands in exchange for military service. However, homogenous noble class in the GDL has never been established based on this document. This document mostly focused on the aristocracy, which was related to the Grand Duke on the grounds of personal relationships and distinguished for its authority particularly in local communities, since it has derived from pagan tribal aristocracy of the communities. 

Pagan Lithuanian past did not leave us much information about families of the rulers and their offsprings. Along with the Christianity, nobility has started widely applying patronymic system, adopted inheritable family name (Gοštautas family was one of the first to do that), as well as have given sense to the inheritable genealogical memory. Reflections of this phenomenon, tracing back to the 18th century, when nobility tried to prove to the new administration of the Russian Empire that they legally dispose of their dominions, can be found in the VDKM. Noble Aužbikavičius (Aušbikavičius) family remembered their last name and noble genealogy from 1649 and related it to the Auzbikai (Ausbikai) dominion and this family‘s name has been seemingly derived from it [9]

After the death of Vytautas, in contrary than it was agreed in Horodło (Horodlė) in 1413, Lithuanian nobility elected Švitrigaila (1430–1432), the youngest brother of Jogaila, as the Grand Duke without consulting with the Council of the Kingdom of Poland. Differences of opinions were also present among the Lithuanian nobility, therefore upheaval was organized in Ashmyany (Ašmena) in 1432, which lead the throne to Sigismund (Žygimantas) (1432–1440), the youngest brother of Vytautas, who also sought to ally with Poland. Civil war began in the GDL, which lasted almost a decade. War was over only after Švitrigaila refused from his claim to the throne of the Grand Duke, and Sigismund was killed as a result of conspiracy in Trakai. In 1440, Lithuanian noblemen elected Casimir (Kazimieras) (GLD 1440–1492, KP 1447–1492), the thirteen-year-old son of Jogaila, who later became the King of Poland, as the Grand Duke. Poland and Lithuania have been ruled by the same ruler, yet remained independent at the same time. In Poland, public life has been increasingly influenced by medium and small nobility, while in Lithuania, with Casimir spending more time in Poland, more influence came from the aristocracy. It was institutionalized by the Council of Lords comprised of highest ranking and most influential officers of the state. Among other things, ruling era of GLD Casimir is known for a long period of peace, development of codification of the law and further state centralization process. Separate lands have been endowed with regional privileges (for example, for Navahrudak in 1440), but network of voivodeships has been developed further (Kiev Voivodeship was established in 1471). Codification of law has reached its new heights. In 1447, Casimir provided nobility with a new global privilege, while the Casimir’s Code entered into force in 1468.  

All these aspects of expression of legal thoughts were later crowned in the First Statute of Lithuania (hereinafter – FSL) published by Sigismund the Old (Žygimantas Senasis) (1506–1548) in 1529. His brother GLD Alexander (GLD 1492–1506, KP 1501–1506) was committed to harmonise laws in the entire territory of the GDL. The laws have been worded in different legal sources, therefore they have been in conflict with each other. Besides, some of them were valid in the entire territory of the GDL, while others were effective only in separate lands of the GDL. This legal code not only harmonised the written law that had been valid until then, but has also been heavily influenced by the customary law and standards of the Roman law. The Statute of 1529 became the first sing of political compromise between the noblemen and small and medium nobility, with its role becoming increasingly significant in the public life of the GDL. The reason for that was the alliance between the GDL and Poland, as well as the example of nobility in the Kingdom of Poland. The Second Statute of Lithuania adopted in 1566, during the rule of Sigismund Augustus (Žygimantas Augustas) (GLD 1544–1572, KP 1548–1572), ratified prerogatives of nobility, rather than those of aristocracy, and the Third Statue of Lithuania, approved by Sigismund Vasa (Žygimantas Vaza) (KP 1587–1632, GLD 1588–1632) in 1588, has finally established the prerogatives.  


Lithuania within the Commonwealth of the Two Nations 

The GDL nobility was encouraged to ally closer with the Kingdom of Poland not only because of attractive ruling system and influence of nobility in a political life, but also due to the persistent military conflict with the state of Moscow, which had started from the 15th century. Lithuania’s luck at wars in 15th–16th centuries was inconsistent: losing duchies in the upper Oka river region, then Smolensk and Novgorod of Seversk, yet smashing the army of the state of Moscow in an outnumbered battle of Orsha in 1514, as well as taking back Gomel during the 1534–1537 war campaign. However, Livonian War, started in 1558, exhausted Lithuania, and the state concluded a Union with Poland in Lublin (1569), under pressure of the KP and GLD Sigismund Augustus. Union of Lublin has created a federal Commonwealth of Lithuania and Poland, ruled by the same ruler and the Sejm (Seimas), but possessing individual title system, territories, treasuries, armies and laws. The state has been called the Commonwealth of the Two Nations (hereafter – the CTN) or shortly the Republic (Rzeczpospolita). 

Lithuania has faced the reform of the courts of first instance and administration in the period of 1564–1566, way before the conclusion of the Union. Following the administrative reform, the GDL was divided into 13 voivodeships comprised of 30 powiats. Powiats had three noble class courts with elected officers overruling the previous Courts of Noblemen. Palace Court used to be responsible for the hearing of criminal proceeding, while Land Court and Chamberlain Court responsible respectively for civil cases and cases related to the disputes over land ownership. Such system remained effective till the period of the great state reform, when Palace Courts have been replaced by Land-owner Courts in 1792. Civil cases of townspeople have been adjudicated by councils, while criminal ones have been taken by the Jury Court chaired by town governor (vaitas). Peasants used to litigate in the Assembly Court.• Appellate cases have been initially adjudicated by the Ruler Court, and later by the Supreme Tribunal of Lithuania established in 1581[10]

Obviously, this system was not refined, often resulting in intertwined competences of the courts. The sources of the VDKM provided in the website imply that civil cases have also been heard in the Palace Court [11]. Each court had its own books of acts. Such books contained different kind of judicial documents: appeals[12], citations[13], interviews of witnesses of the victim party[14], receipts from bailiffs regarding served citations[15] or entering into the rule[16] and whole judicial cases[17]. There are also other documents of different nature and content[18], which the nobility sought to save due to mistrust in personal archives that used to suffer from fires frequently. Claimants or defendants have also made extracts of such documents and used them in the courts of the other instance. The extracts have been approved with signatures and seals of judicial officers.  

GDL Sejm has also been subject to certain changes and reforms. In the beginning of the 16th century it used to be a congress of the Council of Lithuanian noblemen, i.e. Lords, while in the 1640s–50s it has been increasingly dominated by the small and medium nobility. Since the Union of Lublin in 1569, the Sejm became an institution representing the entire nobility class due to establishment of the general Sejm of the CTN. 

Sigismund Augustus was the last patrimonial ruler of the GDL. Following his death, the CTN Sejm began electing European monarchs, thus pursuing the idea of equality of nobility, in order to prevent bringing out one noble family against the others. Vasa (1588–1668) and Saxon (1697–1763 with breaks) dynasties have ruled the CTN for the longest period of time and have involved the state into constant dynastic wars. New ruler election tradition has emerged in between the periods of Vasa and Saxon dynasties. After John Casimir (1648–1668), the last member of the Vasa dynasty, rejected the throne, popular local nobles have been elected as the rulers of the CTN, i.e. Michael Korybut Wisniowiecki (Mykolas Kaributas Višnioveckis) (1669–1673), followed by John Sobieski (Jonas Sobieskis) (1674–1696). It is symbolic that Stanisław August Poniatowski (Stanislovas Augustas Poniatovskis) (1764–1795), a local nobleman, became the last ruler of the CTN. This period has been truly dramatic for the state. Weak authority of the elected monarchs, increased influence of the neighbouring countries, the Empire of Russia in particular, and disagreements between groups of nobles which have usually grown to internal military conflicts, have driven the state to the verge of collapse. In 1772, the territory of the CTN was heavily cut for the benefit of Russia, Austria and Prussia. Reforms not only have matured, but have also been materialized, including state ruling, military, treasury, judicial, educational, economic and other reforms. For instance, many cities and small towns which had been devastated during the war of the 17th–18th centuries, have regained their rights to autonomy, as a result of economic development promotion. That was the reason why a small town of Darsūniškis has retrieved its rights and coat of arms in 1791[19]. The first European constitution (seconds after the USA), adopted by the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792) on the 3rd of May, 1791, stands out a symbol of all of the state reforms. These reforms have been viewed as negative by part of the nobles and neighbouring countries. In 1792, the CTN experienced the second division, while in 1794 the territory of Poland and Lithuania has faced intervention of foreign armies when supressing the uprising of followers of the reforms. 

In Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Empire of Russia, on the 24th of October, 1795, Russia, Austria and Prussia have signed a treaty on the last division of the CTN. After a month, on the 25th of November, KP and GLD S.A.Poniatowski signed an act of abdication, rejection of the throne, thereby completely erasing the CTN from the map of Europe. That was the end of Lithuanian statehood development period that has continually lasted for around five and a half centuries. 


[1] Mindaugas: VDKM, N-971; Treniota: VDKM, N-963; Vaišelga: VDKM, N-964; Traidenis: VDKM, N-962; Butigeidis: VDKM, N-197, N-201, N-204, N-945; Vytenis: VDKM, N-946; Gediminas: VDKM, N-58, N-970; Jaunutis: VDKM, N-947; Algirdas: VDKM, N-949; Jogaila: VDKM, N-940; Kęstutis: VDKM, N-969; Vytautas: VDKM, N-15, N-73, N-810, N-941; Švitrigaila: VDKM, N-960; Kazimieras: VDKM, N-965. 
[2] Aleksandras: VDKM, N-950; Žygimantas Senasis: VDKM, N-951; Žygimantas Augustas: VDKM, N-952; Henrikas Valua: VDKM, N-961; Zigmantas Vaza: VDKM, N-958; Vladislovas Vaza: VDKM, N-959; Mykolas Kaributas Višnioveckis: VDKM, N-955; Jonas Sobieskis: VDKM, N-943; Augustas II: VDKM, N-958; Stanislovas Leščinskis: VDKM, N-944; Augustas III: VDKM, N-957; Stanislovas Poniatovskis: VDKM, N-967. 
[3] Pavyzdžiui, Saulės arba Šiaulių 1236 m. mūšis šiuo metu yra laikomas baltų vienybės simboliu. VDKM, N-788. 
[4] VDKM, N-28. 
[5] VDKM, N-789, N-790, N-931, N-932, N-933, N-934. 
[6] VDKM, N-798. 
[7] VDKM, N-835, N-836, S-2207. 
[8] VDKM, S-2005. Vėlesnės G. Merkatoriaus žemėlapių reprodukcijos: VDKM, S-2370, S-2373.  
[9] VDKM, S-2167. 
[10] VDKM, S-11025-33. 
[11] VDKM, S-11025-9. 
[12] VDKM, S-11025-4. 
[13] VDKM, S-11025-32. 
[14] VDKM, S-11081. 
[15] VDKM, S-11025-5, S-11025-6, S-11025-9, S-1179. 
[16] VDKM, S-1999. 
[17] VDKM, S-11077, S-11078. 
[18] VDKM, S-11025-34, S-11025-12. 
[19] VDKM, S-2265. 
Recommend to a friend
<February 2019>