Gediminas (Belarusian: Гедымін, c. 1275 – December 1341) was Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1315 or 1316 until his death. He is credited with founding this political entity and expanding its territory which, at the time of his death, spanned the area ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Also seen as one of the most significant individuals in early Lithuanian history, he was responsible for both building Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and establishing a dynasty that later came to rule other European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Bohemia.
Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas as depicted in the Sapieha Genealogy in Kodeń, 1709
|Grand Duke of Lithuania|
As part of his legacy, he gained a reputation for being a champion of paganism, who successfully diverted attempts to Christianize his country by skillful negotiations with the Pope and other Christian rulers.
Gediminas was born in about 1275. Because written sources of the era are scarce, Gediminas' ancestry, early life, and assumption of the title of Grand Duke in ca. 1316 are obscure and continue to be the subject of scholarly debate. Various theories have claimed that Gediminas was either his predecessor Grand Duke Vytenis' son, his brother, his cousin, or his hostler. For several centuries only two versions of his origins circulated. Chronicles — written long after Gediminas' death by the Teutonic Knights, a long-standing enemy of Lithuania — claimed that Gediminas was a hostler to Vytenis; according to these chronicles, Gediminas killed his master and assumed the throne. Another version introduced in the Lithuanian Chronicles, which also appeared long after Gediminas' death, proclaimed that Gediminas was Vytenis' son. However, the two men were almost the same age, making this relationship unlikely.
Recent research indicates that Gediminias' ancestor may have been Skalmantas. In 1974 historian Jerzy Ochmański noted that Zadonshchina, a poem from the end of the 14th century, contains a line in which two sons of Algirdas name their ancestors: "We are two brothers – sons of Algirdas, and grandsons of Gediminas, and great-grandsons of Skalmantas." This discovery led to the belief that Skalmantas was the long-sought ancestor of the Gediminids. Ochmański posited that the poem skipped the generation represented by Butvydas, and jumped back to the unknown ancestor. Baranauskas disagrees, believing Skalmantas was Butvydas' brother rather than his father, and that Vytenis and Gediminas were therefore cousins.
Gediminas became the Grand Duke in 1316 at the age of 40 and ruled for 25 years.
Choice of religion
He inherited a vast domain, comprising not only Lithuania proper, but also Samogitia, Navahradak, Podlasie, Polotsk and Minsk. However, these possessions were all environed by the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order, which had long been the enemies of the state. Gediminas allied himself with the Tatars against the Teutonic order in 1319.
The systematic raiding of Lithuania by the knights under the pretext of converting it had long since united all the Lithuanian tribes, but Gediminas aimed at establishing a dynasty which should make Lithuania not merely secure but powerful, and for this purpose he entered into direct diplomatic negotiations with the Holy See as well. At the end of 1322, he sent letters to Pope John XXII soliciting his protection against the persecution of the knights, informing him of the privileges already granted to the Dominicans and Franciscans in Lithuania for the preaching of God's Word. Gediminas also asked that legates should be dispatched to him in order to be baptized. This action was supported by the Archbishop of Riga, Frederic Lobestat. Following these events, peace between the Duchy and the Livonian order was eventually conducted on 2 October 1323.
On receiving a favourable reply from the Holy See, Gediminas issued circular letters, dated 25 January 1325, to the principal Hansa towns, offering a free access into his domains to men of every order and profession from nobles and knights to tillers of the soil. The immigrants were to choose their own settlements and be governed by their own laws. Priests and monks were also invited to come and build churches at Vilnius and Navahradak. In October 1323, representatives of the archbishop of Riga, the bishop of Dorpat, the king of Denmark, the Dominican and Franciscan orders, and the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order assembled at Vilnius, when Gediminas confirmed his promises and undertook to be baptised as soon as the papal legates arrived. A compact was then signed at Vilnius, in the name of the whole Christian World, between Gediminas and the delegates, confirming the promised privileges.
Thus his raid upon Dobrzyń, the latest acquisition of the knights on Polish soil, speedily gave them a ready weapon against him. The Prussian bishops, who were devoted to the knights, questioned the authority of Gediminas' letters and denounced him as an enemy of the faith at a synod in Elbing; his Orthodox subjects reproached him with leaning towards the Latin heresy, while the pagan Lithuanians accused him of abandoning the ancient gods. Gediminas disentangled himself from his difficulties by repudiating his former promises; by refusing to receive the papal legates who arrived at Riga in September 1323, and by dismissing the Franciscans from his territories. These apparently retrogressive measures simply amounted to a statesmanlike recognition of the fact that the pagan element was still the strongest force in Lithuania, and could not yet be dispensed with in the coming struggle for nationality. Even though power rested firmly in the hands of the pagans more than twice as many orthodox Christians livid in his realm than there were pagans inside it.
At the same time Gediminas privately informed the papal legates at Riga through his ambassadors that his difficult position compelled him to postpone his steadfast resolve of being baptised, and the legates showed their confidence in him by forbidding the neighbouring states to war against Lithuania for the next four years, besides ratifying the treaty made between Gediminas and the archbishop of Riga. Nevertheless, disregarding the censures of the church, the Order resumed the war with Gediminas by murdering one of his delegates sent to welcome the Grand Master for his arrival to Riga in 1325. He had in the meantime improved his position by an alliance with Wladislaus Lokietek, king of Poland, and had his daughter Aldona baptized for the sake of betrothing her to Władysław's son Casimir III.
An alternative view of these events was proposed by a British historian, Stephen Christopher Rowell, where he believes that Gediminas never intended to become a Christian himself, since that would have offended the staunchly pagan inhabitants of Žemaitija and Aukštaitija. Both the pagans of Aukštaitija and the Orthodox Rus' threatened Gediminas with death if he decided to convert; a similar scenario also happened to Mindaugas, which he desperately wanted to avoid.
His strategy was to gain the support of the Pope and other Catholic powers in his conflict with the Teutonic Order by granting a favourable status to Catholics living within his realm and feigning a personal interest in the Christian religion. While he allowed Catholic clergy to enter his realm for the purpose of ministering to his Catholic subjects and to temporary residents, he savagely punished any attempt to convert pagan Lithuanians or to insult their native religion. Thus in about 1339-40 he executed two Franciscan friars from Bohemia, Ulrich and Martin, who had gone beyond the authority granted them and had publicly preached against the Lithuanian religion. Gediminas ordered them to renounce Christianity, and had them killed when they refused. Five more friars were executed in 1369 for the same offence.
Despite Gediminas' chief goal to save Lithuania from destruction at the hands of the Germans, he still died as a pagan reigning over semi-pagan lands. Also, he was equally bound to his pagan kinsmen in Samogitia, to his Orthodox subjects in Belarus, and to his Catholic allies in Masovia. Therefore, it is still unclear whether the letters sent to the Pope were an actual request for conversion or simply a diplomatic maneuver.
Incorporation of Slavic lands
While on his guard against his northern foes, Gediminas from 1316 to 1340 was aggrandizing himself at the expense of the numerous Slavonic principalities in the south and east, whose incessant conflicts with each other wrought the ruin of them all. Here Gediminas triumphal progress was irresistible; but the various stages of it are impossible to follow, the sources of its history being few and conflicting, and the date of every salient event exceedingly doubtful. One of his most important territorial accretions, the principality of Halych-Volynia, was obtained by the marriage of his son Lubart with the daughter of the Galician prince.
From about 23 km (14 mi) south west of Kiev, Gediminas resoundingly defeated Stanislav of Kiev and his allies in the Battle on the Irpin River. He then besieged and conquered Kiev sending Stanislav, the last descendant of the Rurik Dynasty to ever rule Kiev, into exile first in Bryansk and then in Ryazan. Theodor, brother of Gediminas, and Algimantas, son of Mindaugas from the Olshanski family, were installed in Kiev. After these conquests, Lithuania stretched as far as to the Black Sea.
While exploiting Slavic weakness in the wake of the Mongol invasion, Gediminas wisely avoided war with the Golden Horde, a great regional power at the time, while expanding Lithuania's border towards the Black Sea. He also secured an alliance with the nascent Grand Duchy of Moscow by marrying his daughter, Anastasia, to the grand duke Simeon. But he was strong enough to counterpoise the influence of Muscovy in northern Russia, and assisted the republic of Pskov, which acknowledged his overlordship, to break away from Great Novgorod.
Domestic affairs and death
His internal administration bears all the marks of a wise ruler. He protected the Catholic as well as the Orthodox clergy; he raised the Lithuanian army to the highest state of efficiency then attainable; defended his borders with a chain of strong fortresses and built numerous castles in towns including Vilnius. At first he moved the capital to the newly built town of Trakai, but in c. 1320 re-established a permanent capital in Vilnius.
Gediminas died in 1341, presumably killed during a coup d'état. He was cremated as a part of a fully pagan ceremony in 1342, which included a human sacrifice, with his favourite servant and several German slaves being burned on the pyre with the corpse. All these facts assert that Gediminas most likely remained entirely faithful to his native Lithuanian religion, and that his feigned interest in Catholicism was simply a ruse designed to gain allies against the Teutonic Order.
He was a founder of a new Lithuanian dynasty; the Gediminids, and laid the foundations of the state's expansion while sometimes referred as the "true" state founder.
In modern belief, he is also regarded as founder of Vilnius, the modern capital of Lithuania. According to a legend, possibly set in 1322 while he was on a hunting trip, he dreamt of an iron clad wolf, who stood on a hill, howling in an odd manner as if thousand of wolves would be howling at once. He consulted his vision with his priest Lizdeika who told him the dream spoke of a city that must be built at the exact place and decided to build a fortification on the confluence of rivers Vilnia and Neris, where the place of his vision was pointed out. This event inspired the Romantic movement, particularly Adam Mickiewicz, who gave the story a poetic form.
Gediminas is depicted on a silver Litas commemorative coin, issued in 1996.
The Lithuanian folk music group Kūlgrinda released an album in 2009 titled Giesmės Valdovui Gediminui, meaning "Hymns to King Gediminas".
Commemoration in Belarus
Gediminas (as Hiedymin or Gedymin) is also widely celebrated in Belarus as an important figure of national history.
In September 2019, a monument to Gediminas was unveiled in Lida.
There is also a boulevard called Bulvar Hiedymina in Lida as well as a restaurant, a brand of bread, and a former brand of beer by the Lida-based beer brewery Lidskaje piva dedicated to Gediminas.
Gediminas' normal Latin style is as follows:
Which translates as:
In his letters to the papacy in 1322 and 1323, he adds Princeps et Dux Semigallie (Prince and Duke of Semigallia). In contemporary Low German he is styled simply Koningh van Lettowen, mirroring the Latin Rex Lethowye (both meaning "King of Lithuania"). Gediminas' right to use the Latin rex, which the papacy had been claiming the right to grant from the 13th century onwards, was not universally recognized in Catholic sources. Thus, he was called rex sive dux ("King or Duke") in one source; Pope John XXII, in a letter to the King of France, referred to Gediminas as "the one who calls himself rex". However, the pope did call Gediminas rex when addressing him (regem sive ducem, "king or duke").
It is uncertain how many wives Gediminas had. The Bychowiec Chronicle mentions three wives: Vida from Courland; Olga from Smolensk; and Jaunė from Polotsk, who was Eastern Orthodox and died in 1344 or 1345. Most modern historians and reference works say Gediminas' wife was Jewna, dismissing Vida and Olga as fictitious, since no sources other than this chronicle mention the other two wives.
An argument has been advanced that Gediminas had two wives, one pagan and another Orthodox. This case is supported only by the Jüngere Hochmeisterchronik, a late 15th-century chronicle, mentioning Narimantas as half-brother to Algirdas. Other historians support this claim by arguing this would explain Gediminas' otherwise mysterious designation of a middle son, Jaunutis, as his succession would be understandable if Jaunutis were the first-born son of Gediminas and a second wife.
He is said to have left seven sons and six daughters including:
- Manvydas (Duchy of Kernavė) (ca. 1288–1348)
- Narimantas (Duchy of Polatsk)
- Karijotas (Duchy of Navhrudak, Black Ruthenia)
- Jaunutis (Duchy of Zaslawye) initially ruled Vilnius after the death of his father
- Algirdas (Duchy of Vitebsk)
- Kęstutis (Duchy of Trakai and protectorate of Duchy of Samogitia)
- Maria, married Dmitry of Tver
- Aldona, married Casimir III of Poland
- Elžbieta, married Wenceslaus of Płock
- Eufemija, married Boleslaw-Yuri II of Galicia
- Liubartas (Duchy of Lutsk, Volhynia)
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