The Grand Duchy of Lithuania



Cheryl Renshaw

Maps:  Andrew Andersen








Although the independent nation of Lithuania has only relatively recently appeared on maps of Eastern Europe, it is preceded by a lengthy and significant history. Modern Lithuanian territory is but a fraction of the vast expanse which once included present-day Ukraine, Belarus and Poland (as part of a unified state) and stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.  Successfully ruled by a dynastic line of dukes, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) managed to penetrate the lands of Rus, develop a highly advanced system of state administration and stave off invading Crusaders longer than any other Central European power.  Its statesmen conducted effective foreign policy and military campaigns and created a multi-ethnic state.  After the Grand Duchy’s incorporation into a union with its neighbor, Poland, its influence began to wane as Lithuanian nobility became more and more Polonised.  Officially Christianized as part of this union, and under increasing Polish cultural pressures, the face of the Grand Duchy’s political relations changed, and ultimately the GDL lost its unique position in the region.  Though officially ended in 1795, the history of the GDL continues to influence modern-day nationalist thinking in the region.  Both Belarus and Ukraine point back to the days when they were part of the thriving GDL as proof of their cultural and political distinction from Russia.  And territorial disputes over the borders of Lithuania and Poland were the cause of great political tension well into the 20th century.     




Establishment of a State: Mindaugas and the consolidation of Lithuanian lands


Although Lithuania’s first king, Mindaugas, was crowned on July 6, 1253, some historians argue that the establishment of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy reaches back even farther.  Though there is little documentation for this time period, it is generally accepted that for one to two hundred years prior to Mindaugas’ rule, Lithuanian tribes had already begun the process of unifying themselves.  During this time, most people were free farmers who worked for so-called “good people,” landowners who would eventually become nobles. Castles, manors and systems of defense were established during this time.[1]  Historian Tomas Baranauskas argues that the GDL was founded around 1183.  By that time, the peoples of the region had established a high level of military strength, a tribute system and a tax collection system organized around manors.  He concludes that Mindaugas did not establish the GDL but merely oriented it toward the West.[2]  


mindaugasLit warrior


Wherever Mindaugas actually entered in the process of the unification of the GDL, much progress toward establishing the Grand Duchy was made under his rule.  State institutions were formed, and, militarily, Lithuania resisted the attacks of the Teutonic Orders on one front and began to expand its territory into the lands of Rus on the other.  Mindaugas attempted to unite three worlds under his rule: pagan Lithuania, Catholic Western Europe and Orthodox Russia.[3] Unable to do so, he eventually claimed to convert to Christianity for presumably political purposes.  A very strong regional leader, Mindaugas’ political tactics involved intrigue and brutality among Lithuania’s princes and his own family members.  Ultimately, a conspiracy was formed against him and he was assassinated in1263 along with his two sons.




The Gediminian dynasty and the strengthening of the GDL


The 1300s brought new agricultural technology, rapid social and economic development and some urban settlement. Within Lithuania proper, the old order of dukes was disappearing, a new class of nobles was forming and specialized artisans were growing in number.  In the area of foreign relations, the joining of the lands of Rus to the GDL opened up new trade routes.[4] Grand Duke Gediminas came to power in 1316, ushering in a new dynasty of leaders. 


Gediminas employed several forms of statesmanship to expand and strengthen the GDL.  He invited members of religious orders to come to the Grand Duchy, announced his loyalty to the Pope and to his neighboring Catholic countries and made political allies with dukes in Rus as well as with the Poles through marriage to women in his family. Gediminas’ political skills are revealed in a series of letters written to Rome and nearby cities.  In 1322, in a letter to Pope John XXII, he claimed that his predecessors, including Mindaugas, had been open to Christianity, but had been betrayed by the Teutonic Knights.  “Holy and honorable Father!,” he wrote, “We are fighting with the Christians not so that we could destroy the Catholic faith, but in order to resist the harm done to us…”  He further mentions the Franciscan and Dominican monks who had come to the GDL by invitation and were given the rights to preach, baptize and perform other religious services.  The next year, he sent a letter to neighboring cities announcing his acceptance of the Christian faith and his intent not to harm, but to, “solidify eternal peace, brotherhood and true love with all of Christ’s believers”.  He also included an open invitation to artisans and farmers to come and live in the GDL, promising support and reduced taxes to those who would come.[5]  Gediminas’ “conversion” is mostly seen as a shrewd political move as he and most of his subjects continued in the worship of pagan Lithuanian gods. 


Along with his other political accomplishments, Gediminas established Vilnius as the capital of the GDL as early as 1323.  During Mindaugas’ rule, he managed to establish a stable state comprised of peoples of varied ethnicity and religious confessions.  When his rule ended in 1341, he left the GDL viable and strong.[6]




The Jagiellonian dynasty – the roles of Jogaila and Vytautas


Jogaila succeeded to the throne in 1377 and presided over a time of continuing encroachment of Christianity as well as territorial expansion.  Caught between Catholic Poland and the Teutonic Knights, Jogaila chose union with the Poles, solidified in the 1385 Act of Kreva.  For the hand of the Polish princess, Jadwiga, Jogaila promised to convert to Roman Catholicism. This signified the beginning of a partnership in which the barons of the still autonomous principalities of Lithuania and Poland agreed to act by mutual consent.[7] When Jogaila became King of Poland, the Gediminian dukes engaged in a power struggle over who would rule Lithuania.  In 1401, in the Acts of Vilnius and Radom, Jogaila’s cousin Vytautas became the independent ruler of the GDL.  Yet, it was established that after his death his lands would be returned to the kingdom of Poland, and the tie between the two nations was again reinforced.[8]


Despite Jogaila’s conversion, and in light of his union with the Poles, the struggle with the Teutonic Knights continued.  After several unsuccessful attempts by the Order and its allies to break the military alliance of the GDL and Poland, a combined Lithuanian-Polish army invaded the territory of the Order in July of 1410 and fought what would be called the Battle of Žalgiris (Grunwald).[9]  The combined forces of 39,000 swiftly defeated the Order, killing almost half of its men, including the Grand Master, and taking 14,000 prisoners for ransom.[10] The victory was decisive, and the military power of the Order was effectively destroyed. 


Territorially, the two powers continued their gradual expansion in the years after the defeat of the Teutonic Knights, eventually stretching between the Baltic and the Black Seas by the 1420s.  Socially, the Jagiellonian period saw the rise of five estates: clergy, nobility, burghers, Jews and peasants, with the nobles exercising power over the other four.[11] The GDL in particular, under Vytautas, developed trade, urban areas, a currency system and a coat-of-arms.  Under his rule, a notion of statehood and national consciousness developed which has been preserved throughout the following centuries.[12]



The Grand Duchy and Poland under united rule


In the century following Vytautas’ reign, the population and diversity of the GDL grew while the power of the Grand Duke began to decline.  By the mid-16th century, Lithuanians made up only around one-third of the total population of an estimated 3 million people.  Slavs, Germans, Jews, Poles, Tatars and Karaites composed the remaining two-thirds.[13] Vytautas’ vision of a strong monarchical government ruling alongside a centralized administrative state was realized only in part.  The Council of Lords developed which grew in power and increasingly determined the actions of the Grand Duke.[14]


Though the threat from the Teutonic Knights had been neutralized in the previous century, in the 16th century Lithuania faced growing military pressure from Muscovy.  At the same time, Poland began to experience growing danger from Turkey and the Crimean Tatars.  For Lithuania, the prospect for a more permanent union with Poland primarily carried the advantage of a stronger defense.  For Poles, such a union was mostly motivated by a desire for the Duchy’s land.  Zygimantas Augustas, both the Grand Duke Lithuania and the king of Poland, had no heir, and his death could have potentially severed Polish ties with the GDL.  In 1569, in the Union of Lublin, the Kingdom of Poland and the GDL became a commonwealth or Rzeczpospolita common currency, governance and policy.  Nobles from both states had the right to own land and to sell goods without paying taxes in either part of the commonwealth.  The two states did retain their own borders, names, armies and administrative powers.[15]    


In 1572, concentration of power into the hands of the nobles further increased with the implementation of an election process that allowed nobles to withdraw their allegiance to the monarch.  This eventually led to a kind of political paralysis as power gradually devolved to local governing bodies.  The diversity of peoples, faiths and political convictions resistant to centralized administration made the job of the leader of the commonwealth more and more difficult. Finally the nobles rebelled against King Kazimierz, who was forced to abdicate the throne.[16]


Beyond political changes, the culture of the GDL changed rather significantly during this time as well.  By the end of 17th century, the Polish language was spoken both by ordinary and high-ranking nobles and officials of the GDL.  In 1697, Polish became the official language of the commonwealth’s diet as well as the GDL chancellery.[17] Lithuanian language, as a result, became a language of the peasant class.[18]


Through the 1700s, Russian and Prussian expansionism took its toll on the commonwealth.  In 1772, the joint republic was partitioned for the first time between Russia, Prussia and Austria and lost 30% of its land and 35% of its population.[19]  In 1793, the Russians and Prussians partitioned the Republic a second time, taking half of its remaining territory.  One year later, GDL and Polish armies mounted separate insurrections against the occupying forces, but it would end in defeat.  In October, 1795, Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned the remaining lands of the Republic, thus marking the end of the commonwealth.[20]




Impact of history on regional nationalism     


Like most nations emerging from rule by another power, many Lithuanians return to the past to define their national identity.  In this case, though, there are competing claims upon history.  In both the inter-war years and the post-Soviet period, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland have made attempts to define their national rights and identities in relation to the GDL.  As early as the 1920s, Belarusians were attempting to define the GDL as a Belarusian state.  Along with Ukrainians, they sought ethnic and historical separation from Russians and Poles.[21] In 1991, as a show of protest against President Lukashenka’s plan to reintegrate Belarus into Russia after independence, the leading opposition party adopted the red and white flag with the Pahonya coat of arms, symbols which originated during the reign of Vytautas.  In the absence of its own national ideology, Belarus was forced to create one in order to prove its right to exist independently. Prime Minister Kebich remarked that, “with the poor national arsenal we have received in all areas of spiritual life, we can hardly convince our contemporaries and descendents that we have a history of our own.”[22]


In the case of Poland, historical territory and identity became a source of conflict, not just an ideological proposition.  Because of the history of free movement of Poles and Lithuanians in the commonwealth, many ethnic Polish families established themselves in Lithuania and maintained strong ties with Poland.  Beyond ethnolinguistic and minority issues, some Poles believed that the city of Vilnius (which it annexed and occupied) and other territory rightfully belonged to Poland.  Some even advocated the re-establishment of the Rzeczpospolita.  A secret Polish military organization operated in Lithuania from 1918-1919 and conspired to overthrow the Lithuanian government.[23] Diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Poland were effectively broken until the end of the 1980s when the brewing independence movement brought the former allies back together.  Today, the two countries are staunch supporters of each other’s post-communist transition, including their respective NATO and European Union aspirations.                        





Note: In reading about the GDL, you may occasionally find the following Polish spellings of names:




Jogaila- Jagiello







Annotated bibliography of materials and suggested further readings


*  denotes Lithuanian language only sources






*Avižonis, Konstantinis, ed., Rinktiniai Raštai, Rome: The Academy of Lithuanian Catholic Studies, 1982


The Collected Works include  documents from the ruling regimes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania regarding politics, administration, religion, and relations with Sweden, Muscovy and Poland.  The works include a few reviews of books in English as well as some German-language documents regarding the Lithuanian-Polish union.    


Davies,  Norman,  God’s Playground, vol. 1  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982)


Chapter 5 of Davies’ book chronicles the role of Jogaila and the Lithuanian Union with Poland (1386-1572).  Detailed descriptions of the Union of Kreva (Krewo), defense against the Teutonic Knights, Christianization and the legacy of the Jagiellionian dynasty.  Includes family tree diagrams for the Jagiellons and Vasas (p. 136). 


Institute of Lithuanian Scientific Society, “Lithuanian Classical Literature Anthology,” [sponsored by UNESCO’s “Publica” series] copyright 1999-2002 <>  (Accessed April 24, 2002).

The texts of the letters of Grand Dukes Mindaugas and Gediminas from 1254-1338.  These letters include communications between the Grand Duchy and Pope John XXII, the orders of Franciscan and Dominican priests as well as the governments of major cities in the region.  The letters reflect political, religious and economic relations of the Grand Duchy with Rome and its neighbors and Gediminas’ efforts to build the strength of the Duchy.



Joseph Lins, “Lithuania”, [from the Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. IX, online copyright 1999] <> (Accessed April 24, 2002

Brief history of the Catholic Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania until 1659.



Kiaupa, Žigmantas, Jūrate Kiaupienė and Albinas Kuncevičius, The History of Lithuania before 1795, Vilnius:Lithuanian Institute of History, 2000.


This book traces Lithuanian history from the Mesolithic Period to the end of the Grand Duchy and the Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth.  Detailed treatment of political with some social history. 



Kirby, David, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, The Baltic World 1492-1772, (London:Longman, 1990)


An excellent and comprehensive source of political and social history of the region.  Kirby does not focus very much on the GDL or the Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth.  However, this source puts the role of the GDL into its greater historical context.


 *Makauskas, Bronius, Lietuvos Istorija, Kaunas: Šviesa, 2000.


The History of Lithuania provides a general introduction to the country’s history from the Baltic tribes to the present.    



Rowell, S.C., Lithuania Ascending. A pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345, (Cambridge University Press, 1994) 289.


In Chapter 8 Rowell recounts the conditions under which the GDL was consolidated under Mindaugas and the Gediminian dynasty.  He pays particular attention to the presence of Christian movements prior to the GDL’s official acceptance of Catholicism.  The chapter includes an appendix of primary sources in Russian and English related to the fall of Kiev to the Lithuanians.



Sahm, Astrid, “Political Culture and National Symbols: Their Impact in the Belarusian Nation-Building Process” Nationalities Papers [Great Britian], 1999, 27 (4)


The article includes a good description of post-1989 political efforts in Belarusia to counter current pro-Russian politics with symbols of Belarusian distictiveness.  




*Sliesoriūnas, Gintautas, Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštystė Vidaus Karo Išvakarėse: didikų grupuočių kova 1690-1697 m               Vilnius: Lithuanian Institute of History, 2000.


The Grand Duchy of Lithuania on the Eve of the Domestic War analyzes the causes and results of the war between the nobles from 1690-1697.  Within this framework, the author also treats the oligarchy of the nobles as a whole along with the development of the government of the Grand Duchy.    


 Tomas Baranauskas, “Medieval Lithuania,” <>  (Last updated January 26, 2002.  Accessed April 24, 2002).  

Baranauskas, of the Lithuanian Institute of History, includes a variety of articles on Lithuanian history from pre-history through the Grand Duchy era (including maps and a currently incomplete chronology) as well as articles related to Lithuanian society.



Valionis, Antanas, Evaldas Ignatavičius and Izolda Bričkovskienė, “From Solidarity to Partnership: Lithuanian-Polish Relations 1988-1998,” Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review, 1998, vol.2.  Available at: <> (accessed 06/03/02)


Description of mutual support in the independence movement and subsequent development of Lithuanian-Polish relations.  Also includes brief historical background.



*Varnienė, Janina, ed., Lietuvos istorijos straipsnių ir dokumentų rinkinys. Vilnius: Arlila, 1999.


The collection of documents and articles from Lithuanian history includes a very wide range of materials from Lithuanian pre-history to the time of publishing. Topics include: pre-state history, the era of the Gediminas dynasty and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish-Lithuanian republic, Lithuanian relations with Sweden and the Russian Empire, both World Wars and the inter-war period, Soviet Lithuania and the recreation of the independent Lithuanian state.      



Zejmis, Jakub, “Belarusian National Historiography and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a Belarusian State,”  Zeitschrift fur Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung , 1999, 48, p. 383-396.


Describes the extent to which some Belarusian historiographers contend that the GDL was a product of Belarusian influence.




*Žirgulys, A., ed. Lietuvos Metraštis: Bychovco kronika.  Vilnius: Vaizdas Printing, 1971.


The Lithuanian Chronicles (or The Chronicles of Bychovcas) is a collection of historical, political and literary documents from the age of the Grand Duchy.




            Originally published at           






[1]  Makauskas, Bronius, Lietuvos Istorijos, (Kaunas: Šviesa, 2000)  37-38.


[2] Baranauskas, Tomas


[3] Kiaupa, Zigmantas , Jūrate Kiaupienė and Albinas Kuncevičius, The History of Lithuania before 1795, (Vilnius: Lithuanian Institute of History, 2000) 71-72.


[4] Kiaupa, 75-77.


[5] Institute of Lithuanian Scientific Society, “Lithuanian Classical Literature Anthology,” Gedimino Laiškai (The Letters of Gediminas) [sponsored by UNESCO’s “Publica” series] copyright 1999-2002 <>  (Accessed April 24, 2002).


[6] S.C. Rowell, Lithuania Ascending. A pagan empire within east-central Europe, 1295-1345, (Cambridge University Press, 1994) 289.


[7] Norman Davies, God’s Playground, vol. 1  (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) 116-120.


[8] Makauskas, 82.


[9] Kiaupas, 139.


[10] Davies, 122.


[11] Davies, 124-127.


[12] Kiaupa, 160.


[13] Ibid., 162.


[14] Ibid., 164-165.


[15] Makauskas, 111-113.


[16] Kirby, David, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period, The Baltic World 1492-1772, (London:Longman, 1990) 103-106.


[17] Kiaupa, 298-299.


[18] Valionas, Antanas, Evaldas Ignatavicius, Izolda Brickovskiene, “From Solidarity to Partnership:Lithuanian-Polish Relations 1988-1998,”  Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review,  1998, issue 2.   

    Available at:  (accessed: 06/03/02)


[19] Ibid., 343.


[20] Ibid., 353-358.


[21] Zejmis,  Jakub, “Belarusian National Historiography and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a Belarusian State,” Zeitschrift fur Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung , 1999, 48, p. 383.


[22] Astrid Sahm, “Political Culture and National Symbols: Their Impact in the Belarusian Nation-Building Process” Nationalities Papers [Great Britian], 1999, 27 (4),   651-652.


[22] Makauskas, 291-296.