Lithuania (Ger. Litauen), an ancient grand-duchy united with Poland in the fourteenth century.
The Lithuanians belong to the Indo-Germanic family, of which they form with the Letts and the extinct Borussians (Old Prussians) the Balto-Slavonic group. Within the Russian Empire they dwell principally in the governmental districts of Kovno, Grodno, Tchernigoff, and, in smaller numbers, in some few districts of Russian Poland (total in 1897: 1,658,542, or, including the Letts, 3,094,469). In Germany they are found in the northern part of East Prussia and in West Prussia (total about 110,000). Concerning their early history, even today little reliable information is available. In the twelfth century of our era, we find them divided into various clans and taking part in the wars between the princes of Polozk, Novgorod, Tchernigoff, etc., now as allies of the princes and again as enemies. From the end of the twelfth century they were engaged in constant warfare with the Order of the Brethren of the Sword, who were extending their conquests along the coast of the Baltic into Livonia. The Lithuanians were divided politically into numerous principalities, mostly hereditary, and to a great extent independent of one another.
The credit of having united them belongs to Prince Mendog (or Mindowe), who, towards the middle of the thirteenth century, succeeded in compelling the lesser princes to recognize his supremacy. With a view to strengthening his position against external enemies, especially the Teutonic Order, Mindowe and his wife sought baptism in 1250 or 1251, and received from Innocent IV the royal crown, with which he was crowned by the Bishop of Iiulm, in 1262 (1253) in presence of the Master of the Teutonic Order. As Mindowe desired a special diocese for his territories, one Christian, a member of the Teutonic Order, was by order of the pope consecrated Bishop of Lithuania by Archbishop Albert of Riga. Notwithstanding Albert‘s efforts to secure this new diocese as suffragan of his see, it was made directly dependent on Rome. Of Christian‘s activity in Lithuania little is known. At this period, however, ‘Christianity acquired no firm footing in Lithuania proper; it was embraced only by Mindowe and his immediate friends, and by them purely for political reasons, and it was also with an eye to political interest that they reverted to paganism about 1262. As Christian was coadjutor Bishop of Mainz as early as 1259, he cannot have long occupied the See of Lithuania; his successor, John, also a member of the Teutonic Order, also appears as coadjutor Bishop of Constance. The murder of Mindowe by his nephew Traniate was followed by great political confusion and a complete relapse into paganism. In the Russian territories, however, which were then and later known as Lithuanian, Christianity was retained under the Greek Orthodox form, these regions having been evangelized from Byzantium.
The first step towards the restoration of Lithuanian power was taken by Gedymin (archduke from 1316), when he introduced German colonists into his territories, and founded numerous cities and towns, granting them the privileges customary in Germany. The most important of these cities was Wilna, afterwards the capital of Lithuania. Gedymin succeeded in extending his kingdom to the east by successful battles with the Tatars, who had then made themselves masters of Russia. From 1336 he was involved in war with the Teutonic Order, and was slain while besieging Welona, one of their fortresses, in 1340 or 1341. Two of his sons, Olgerd and Keistut, successfully defended the independence of their kingdom against the order, while pushing their conquests further into Russia. Vigorous champions of paganism, they opposed the entrance of Christianity within their frontiers, although Gedymin, while himself remaining a heathen, had granted entire freedom to the Christian religion. Thus, the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries founded at Wilna under Gedymin were suppressed by his sons. Olgerd (d. 1377) was succeeded by his son Jagello, who made overtures to the Teutonic Order and concluded a secret treaty with it. Jagello, however, awakened the suspicions of his uncle, Keistut, who took up arms, surprised him at Wilna, and made him prisoner for a time. In the ensuing civil war, Keistut allowed himself to be enticed into Jagello’s camp under pledge of personal safety, but on his arrival there he was at once seized, thrown into prison, and eventually put to death (1382).
In 1384, upon the death of Louis I of Hungary and Poland, the Polish nobles, having crowned his daughter Hedwig, decided that as the new queen was but fifteen years old, she must be provided with a consort capable of protecting her dominions. Their choice fell upon Jagello of Lithuania, whose hostility to the Teutonic Order made him their natural ally. Moreover, the Catholic Church in Poland saw in this union the promise of glorious missionary activity in a land still for the most part pagan. The Franciscan provincial, Kmita, who enjoyed Jagello’s confidence, was one of the foremost advocates of union between the kingdoms. Jagello, after formally suing for the queen’s hand, promised to embrace the Catholic Faith, with his brothers and all his subjects, to unite his Lithuanian and Russian lands forever with the Polish Crown, to recover at his own expense the territory taken from Poland, and to pay Duke William of Austria, who had been promised Hedwig’s hand, an indemnity of 200,000 gulden. Iedwig at length consented to the match. Jagello was baptized on February 15, 1386, taking the name of Wladislaw, and on March 4 he was married to Hedwig and crowned King Consort and Regent of Poland.
As the result of this union between Lithuania and Poland, a mighty Christian kingdom arose in Eastern Europe. Lithuania itself, three times as large as Poland, but far below it in culture, ceased to be independent, but it was now for the first time brought into immediate contact with Western civilization. In 1387 Jagello returned to his home, accompanied by missionaries. He won the good will of the nobles (boyars) for Christianity by granting them, on February 20, the same liberties as were then enjoyed by the Catholic nobles in Poland. A see was established at Wilna, and Vasylo, a Polish Franciscan, appointed its first bishop. The Russian portions of Lithuania (Kiev, Tchernigoff, etc.) remained Greek Orthodox, but the Samoghitians continued for some time longer to be pagans. To strengthen the internal union between the peoples, Polish law was conceded only to the Catholic Lithuanians in the Constitution of 1387, and marriage with the Greek Orthodox was forbidden. At first the relation between Lithuania and Poland was simply a personal union. Jagello retained for himself the princely dignity, but appointed a governor for Lithuania—first his brother Skirgjello o and then, from 1392 to 1430, his cousin Witold. His endeavor to maintain this relation of independence towards the Polish Crown was rendered abortive by his defeat at the hands of the Tatars in 1399, which compelled him to enter into closer relations with the Poles. In 1401 the political union of the kingdoms took place; Lithuania was to be independent as long as Witold lived, but was then to be annexed to the Crown of Poland; Witold and the boyars took the oath of allegiance, and the Polish nobility promised to support the Lithuanians, and, after Jagello’s death, to elect no king without first consulting them.
Besides their common warfare against the Teutonic Order, the fusion of the two peoples was furthered by the Assembly of Horodlo on the Bug in 1413, at which the earlier union was renewed, and a large number of the Lithuanian boyars were admitted into the Polish nobility, receiving identical privileges. Furthermore, both the Polish and the Lithuanian nobility received from the king the right of convoking assemblies and parliaments in the interests of the kingdom with the permission of the prince. For the Lithuanians, whose government had previously been absolute, this right meant a constitution—even though oligarchical—by means of which they could readily make their influence felt in the affairs of the nation. But the division between Catholics and Greek Orthodox in the Little Russian districts still continued. To heal this, Witold labored for ecclesiastical union between the two sections of the people. In 1415 he summoned an Orthodox synod at Nowohorodok, which declared the Lithuanian Orthodox Church, with its Metropolitan of Kiev, independent of the Patriarch of Moscow. In 1418 he sent Gregory Camblak (or Cemiwlak), Metropolitan of Kiev, with eighteen suffragan bishops, to the Council of Constance to conclude a union with Rome, and to secure, in return for their recognition of papal supremacy, the retention of the Slavic Liturgy and Rite. The mission failed, however, nor were the negotiations at the Council of Florence in 1439 more successful. It was, indeed, only about 150 years later, at the Synod of Brest-Litovsk (1595-96), that the union of the Little Russian, or Ruthenian, Church with Rome was accomplished (see Union of BREST).
Religious divisions and the establishment of Polish garrisons in Lithuania, created a state of feeling which, after Witold’s death, manifested itself in repeated rebellions. The union was formally dissolved when, on the death of Casimir IV, in 1402, 4.6 Lithuanians chose his fourth son, Alexander, as their grandduke, and the Poles elected his third son, John Albert, their king. Only the war against the Teutonic Order, in 1499, brought the two peoples together once more. Even after the death of Alexander, in 1501, there still remained a powerful party in favor of independence; these found support in Russia, which, from the time of Ivan III (1462-1505), had been growing in power. The threatened separation, however, and the daily increasing evidence that Russia was to be the chief rival of Poland in Easteri Europe, led to a reaction among the Poles. They recognized the urgent necessity of exchanging a deceptive union for a genuine unity of the whole Polish Empire. Four previous diets having vainly sought a solution of the problem, that assembled at Lublin in 1569 at last affected the Union of Lublin. The union was proclaimed in July of the same year, and confirmed on oath by both parties. Henceforth, Poles and Lithuanians formed one kingdom, with one king elected in common, with a common diet, a common mint, etc.; of its earlier independence, Lithuania retained its own administration, its own finances, and its own army. Thereafter, Lithuania shared the fate of Poland, although in 1648 one section of the Lithuanians of Little Russia—the Ukraine—separated from Poland and, in 1654, made their submission to the Tsar of Russia. The various partitions of Poland resulted in the larger portion of Lithuania being ceded to Russia, the smaller to Prussia.
(See also Greek Catholics in America; Greek Church; Eastern Churches.)