From New World Encyclopedia
Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas - engraving of XVII ct.

Gediminas (c. 1275 – 1341) was the monarch of medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania with the title of Grand Duke, but more correctly High King, according to the contemporary perception. He was the ruler of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 1316–1341, which chiefly meant monarch of Lithuanians and much of Rus'. He was the true founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an empire. He has a reputation of inveterate pagan who fiercely resisted all attempts to Christianize his country, though the case is actually somewhat more complex. Gediminas established Lithuania as an empire, controlling trade, military service, and diplomatic efforts within the duchy. Relics, such as the statue and tower both located in Vilnius Lithuania and a reconstructed castle situated in Lida, stand in remembrance and honor of the past ruler and his many important historic contributions to the area as a whole.

This period of history is important for Lithuanian identity. Building on Gediminas' legacy, by the end of the fourteenth century, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe. In union with Poland (1569-1791) it became a power in the region. However, it was later dismantled by its neighbors, especially by Russia until much of its territory had been annexed. An independent state after World War I, it was occupied by Nazi Germany, then by the Soviet Union during World War II, which the latter then made in to one of its puppet republics. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lithuania was the first republic to declare independence. In 2004, Lithuania joined the European Union. Confident in their self-identity and proud of their past, Lithuanians, now once more a free neither want to dominate nor to be dominated by others. Rather, they want to collaborate with other nations on the basis of equality. A more unified world is only likely to emerge when people gain freedom and so can unite with other people on an equal basis to find ways of making the whole world a more sustainable, peaceful, and just habitat for all humanity.

Modern Litas commemorative coin dedicated to Gediminas

Title used in correspondence

Gediminas' normal Latin style is as follows:

  • Gedeminne Dei gratia Letwinorum et multorum Ruthenorum rex[1]

Which translates as:

  • "Gediminas, by the grace of God, of the Lithuanians and many Rus'ians, king"[1]

In his letters to the papacy in 1322 and 1323, he adds Princeps et Duke Semigallie (Prince and Duke of Semigallia).[2] In contemporary Low German he is styled simply Koningh van Lettowen, mirroring the Latin Rex Lethowye (both "King of Lithuania").[1] Gediminas' right to use Latin rex, which the papacy had been claiming the right to grant from the thirteenth century, was controversial in some Catholic sources. So for instance he was called rex sive dux ("King or Duke") by one source; Pope John XXII, in a letter to the King of France, refers 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").[2]


Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas on stamp. Issued on August 25, 1920.

He was supposed by the earlier chroniclers to have been the ostler of Vytenis, Grand Duke of Lithuania, but more probably he was Vytenis' younger brother and the son of Butvydas (Pukuwer), another Lithuanian grand duke. In any case, his purported Rurikid origin was a later fake. According to the latest research, even his grandfather cannot be named with certainty. Gediminas became Grand Duke (didysis kunigaikštis) of Lithuania in 1316 at the age of 40 and ruled for 25 years.[3]

Choice of religion

He inherited a vast domain, comprising Lithuania proper, Samogitia, Navahradak, Podlachia, Polotsk]] and Minsk; but these possessions were environed by powerful and greedy foes, the most dangerous of them being theTeutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. The systematic raiding of Lithuania by the knights under the pretext of converting it had long since united all the Lithuanian tribes against the common enemy; but Gediminas aimed at establishing a dynasty which should make Lithuania not merely secure but mighty, and for this purpose he entered into direct diplomatic negotiations with the Holy See. 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 the Franciscans in Lithuania for the preaching of God's Word, and desiring that legates should be sent to receive him also into the bosom of the church.

On receiving a favorable reply from the Holy See, Gediminas issued circular letters, dated January 25, 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 baptized 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.

Gediminas Tower named after the founder of Vilnius, although it was built considerably later.

But the Christianizing of Lithuania was by no means to the liking of the Teutonic Knights, and they used every effort to nullify Gediminas far-reaching design. This, unfortunately, was too easy to do. Gediminas chief object was to save Lithuania from destruction at the hands of the Germans. But he was still a pagan reigning over semi-pagan lands; he was equally bound to his pagan kinsmen in Samogitia, to his Orthodox subjects in Belarus, and to his Catholic allies in Masovia. His policy, therefore, was necessarily tentative and ambiguous and might very readily be misinterpreted.

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, at a synod at Elbing questioned the authority of Gediminas letters and denounced him as an enemy of the faith; 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.

At the same time, Gediminas, through his ambassadors, privately informed the papal legates at Riga that his difficult position compelled him for a time to postpone his steadfast resolve of being baptized, and the legates showed their confidence in him by forbidding the neighboring states to war against Lithuania for the next four years, besides ratifying the treaty made between Gediminas and the archbishop of Riga. Nevertheless, in 1325, the Order, disregarding the censures of the church, resumed the war with Gediminas, who had in the meantime improved his position by an alliance with Wladislaus Lokietek, king of Poland, whose son Casimir III now married Gediminas' daughter Aldona.

Rowell's view

A peace agreement between Gediminas and the Order

An alternative view of the supposed readiness of Gediminas to be converted to Christianity is taken by Stephen Christopher Rowell in the book Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe 1295-1345. Rowell believes that Gediminas never intended to become a Christian himself, since that would have offended the staunchly pagan inhabitants of Žemaitija and Aukštaitija, the ethnic heartland of Lithuania. Rather, his strategy was to gain the support of the Pope and other Catholic powers in his conflict with the Teutonic Order by granting favorable status to Catholics living within his realm and feigning a personal interest in the Christian religion.[4]

Rowell points out that the formulation of the letter to Pope John XXII of 1322 was intentionally vague, and that the phrase "fidem Catholicism recipere" could be interpreted as "accept Catholicism for himself," or simply "welcome the Catholic faith to Lithuania (i.e. allow Catholics to practice their religion there)." As he states on page 197 of his book:

The ambiguity of the phrase "fidem recipere" is surely deliberate. It gives the impression that the grand duke is asking for baptism and indeed it does mean this. However it is also so vague that it could simply mean that the Catholics were welcome in Lithuania. This is the admittedly casuistical meaning Gediminas later chose to give to the periphrases his letters employ for conversion.

Gediminas castle in Lida (reconstruction).

Rowell also shows that while Gediminas 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 offense.

Rowell describes the cremation of Gediminas in 1342, as being a fully pagan ceremony, including human sacrifice, with a favorite servant and several German slaves being burned on the pyre with the corpse. All these facts demonstrate that Gediminas remained 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.

Rowell points out that the Templar Order had been suppressed]] only two decades previously by the King Philip IV of France with the connivance of the Pope Clement V, and that that had encouraged Gediminas and other enemies of the Teutonic Order (for example, the King of Poland and the Archbishop of Riga) to believe that a similar suppression of that Order might be achieved with Papal blessing. The letter of 1322 is to be understood in that political context.

Incorporation of Slavic lands

An oak in Raudone under which Gediminas is reputed to have been mortally wounded.

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; the other, Kiev, apparently by conquest.

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 Muscovy 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

His internal administration bears all the marks of a wise ruler. During his reign he built an army from his people, collected taxes to bolster his domain, and formed treaties with outside forces.[5] He protected the Catholic as well as the Orthodox clergy, encouraging them both to civilize his subjects; 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, the capital to be. At first he moved the capital to the newly built town of Trakai, but in 1323, re-established a permanent capital in Vilnius. Gediminas bolstered trade and agriculture within the reaches of his empire and also expanded his influence though militaristic and diplomatic efforts, as well as with the establishment of ties created with foreign nations through the arranged marriages of several of his children.[6]

Gediminas died in the last week of 1341 (presumably he was killed in time of coup d'état). He was married three times, and left seven sons and six daughters. Two of his sons perished in battle. Jaunutis initially ruled Vilnius after the death of his father and was formally Grand Duke of Lithuania until his elder brothers Algirdas and Kęstutis returned from military campaigns in Ruthenia and forced him to abdicate his throne in their favor.


Gediminas had a strong impact on the creation of a distinct Lithuanian nation. His efforts to effectively rule and operate the social and political mechanisms of the area were very important during the years in which they were instituted, and they would also have an impact well into the future. During his reign, Gediminas initiated Lithuania's encroachment into the Slavic lands that bordered the country to the east. He was also fundamentally involved in establishing the capital city of Vilinus while in power. His wise decision to side with neither the Catholic nor Orthodox church would prevent him from developing tensions with nations allied on either side of the religious spectrum. Gediminas ran an efficient empire, effectively levying taxes and building an army comprised of his subjects, which would make the empire strong and help it to run more smoothly overall. The Gediminaicai dynasty was created from the bloodline of Gediminas, as forthcoming great European monarchies would come to be presided over by the kinfolk of this important ruler.

This period of history is important for Lithuanian identity. Although Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe during the fourteenth century, and, in union with Poland (1569) became a power in the region, it was later dismantled by its neighboring countries, especially by Russia, until much of its territory had been annexed. Independent again after World War I, it was occupied by Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union during World War II. It then, unwillingly, became a republic of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lithuania was the first republic to declare its independence. In 2004, confident in its own cultural and national identity, the former Soviet republic joined the European Union.

Preceded by:
Monarch of Lithuania
Succeeded by:


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Rowell (1994), 63.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Rowell (1994), 64.
  3. Nicholson (2004), 106.
  4. Nicholson (2004), 107.
  5. Nicholson (2004), 106-107.
  6. Nicholson (2004), 107.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Furmonavicius, D. Lithuania Rejoins Europe. New York: Columbia Univ Press, 2008. ASIN B00XUZ4H4M
  • Nicholson, Helen J. The Crusades. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004. ISBN 0313326851.
  • Nikžentaitis, Alvydas. Gediminas. Vilnius: Vyriausioji enciklopedijų redakcija, 1989.
  • Rowell, S.C. Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire Within East-Central Europe, 1295-1345. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0521450119.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

External links

All links retrieved April 18, 2024.


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