Prepared by “Encyclopedia Lituanica”. II. Boston, 1972. P. 113-118.
Birute and Kestutis. Illustration from the Archives of the Palanga Amber MuseumKESTUTIS (ca 1300-1382), Grand Prince of Lithuania, son of Gediminas. The year of his birth and the events of his early life are not known.
His name is mentioned for the first time in the Lithuanian Chronicles under 1338 along with other sons of Gediminas and the lands which they were appointed to rule. Kestutis was either the 4th or 5th son of Gediminas. In the year of his father's death (1341) he was the ruler of Samogitia, Trakai, Gardinas and Podlachia (Lith. Palenke). This made up a long stretch of land running along the western boundary of Lithuania between Livonia (Latvia) in the north and Volynia (the Ukraine) in the south. It is not known exactly when Kestutis started ruling these lands; probably before 1338.
After the death of Gediminas, his son Jaunutis became Grand Prince of Lithuania and remained in Vilnius, but he ruled only for a few years (1341-5). He was driven from the throne by his brothers Kestutis and Algirdas. Kestutis, whose residence was Trakai, ca 25 kilometers from Vilnius, occupied the castle of Vilnius. Algirdas became Grand Prince after this coup, but both brothers agreed to support each other and to share equally all newly-conquered territories. This brotherly agreement made them equal partners in government. Abroad, it was not even clear which one was the formal head of government, and in the writings of the time both are called kings (ambo reges). Algirdas was mostly concerned with the eastern boundaries of Lithuania and dealt with the problem of resisting the Muscovites and the Tatars, while Kestutis had to fight the Teutonic Order and Poland to protect the western and southern regions of the country. The difference in their territory and in their opponents required different modes of action, but during their joint rule of 32 years (1345-77), they never had any disagreements. Some historians are inclined to call this harmonious rule a diarchy.
The Struggle with the Teutonic Order was the main task of Kestutis, who sought to defend the existence of the Lithuanian nation. Ever since their establishment at the Prussian border in 1231, the Teutonic Knights had organized crusades against the Prussians and the Lithuanians. This method of spreading the faith, accomplished by first conquering the land and then converting it, was supported by the Christian states of Western Europe from which the Order received continuous military support. After the Prussians were conquered in 1283, the Knights' attacks were concentrated around the Nemunas river and attempts were made to penetrate into the mainland along the river and its tributaries. The chroniclers mention that about a hundred such attempts were made by the Teutonic Knights during the rule of Kestutis, 70 of them from Prussia and 30 from Livonia. In return, Lithuanians penetrated Prussia 30 times and Livonia 10 times. It is believed that the chronicles did not mention all the attacks. The accounts of these attacks emphasize the burning of dwellings and the killing of people; they mention how many people were killed and how many taken prisoners, how much loot was taken, and how many horses and cattle were captured. Samogitia was the region most frequently devastated. The lands 'of Gaizuva, Ariogala and Raseiniai were constantly ravaged. In the interior of Samogitia the knights used to reach Medininkai, Kraziai, Vidukle, and Kaltinenai. Between the lower part of the Nevezis and Neris rivers, they attacked Labunava, Kedainiai, Zeimiai, and Ukmerge. In 1348, 1365, and 1377 they organized larger attacks against Trakai and Vilnius. After 1372 they started attacking settlements on the middle course of the Nemunas river: Darsuniskis, Alytus, Merkine and Gardinas. From Livonia, the Teutonic Knights reached Panevezys, Upyte, Ramygala, Utena, Dubingiai, and Giedraiciai. Returning these attacks, the Lithuanians reached the Prussian lands of Ragaine, Isrutis, Veluva, Tepliuva, Girdava, Ungura, Alna, Rudava and others. In Livonia they invaded Kuldiga, Jelgava (Mitau), Dobele, Krustpils, and Daugavpils. The Lithuanians were less successful in penetrating enemy territory because the lands ruled by the Order were more densely populated and had a larger network of fortresses.
Some of the larger battles, or at least the ones about which the chronicles wrote extensively, were those of Streva in 1348, Kaunas in 1362 and Rudava in 1370. The battle of Streva was especially detrimental to the Lithuanians because most of the warriors drowned. But the Lithuanians were more hurt by the destruction of the castle of Kaunas. The defenders of the fort were defeated after a siege of 3 weeks. Only 36 men with their leader Vaidotas, son of Kestutis surrendered to the enemy. Kestutis and Algirdas invaded Prussia, the territory of Semba, in 1370 and seized the castle of Rudava, 16 km north of Konigsberg. In this battle, the grand marshal of the Order, Hennig von Schindekof, several other leaders and a large number of allies, who had come to the aid of the Order, were killed. The Lithuanians did not suffer any large losses. Not one of these larger battles was decisive and there were no territorial changes during the reign of Kestutis.
Only once Kestutis was captured prisoner by the Order. It happened in the spring of 1361 when he was either invading or hunting in the territory of Eckersburg. He was taken prisoner and kept in the castle of Marienburg, the capital of the Order. There he was imprisoned for over 6 months. With the help of one of the servants he disguised himself as a German knight and secretly escaped.
The War with Poland. Lithuania and Poland disagreed over the territory of Volynia-Galicia. Since 1340 the territory was ruled by Liubartas, brother of Kestutis. The king of Poland, Casimir the Great (1333-1370), seeking to expand his kingdom in the southeast toward the Black Sea, in 1349 invaded the territory ruled by Liubartas and occupied a part of it. The next year Kestutis, supporting his brother, twice marched to Lesser Poland. A peace treaty was signed in 1352, according to which the city of Lvov was given to Poland, while Lithuania kept the cities of Vladimir, Lutsk, Belz, Chelm and Brest. The treaty did not last. King Casimir, and later his nephew and heir, the King of Hungary Louis d'Anjou, did not cease to seek the territory of Volynia. In 1370 Kestutis destroyed the castle of Vladimir taken by the Poles and drove the enemy from Volynia. In 1376 he invaded the region of Sandomierz, marching not far from Cracow. Only after the death of Algirdas, when Kestutis became involved in domestic quarrels, did he make peace with King Louis d'Anjou, ceding him Galicia (1378). Volynia remained in Lithuanian territory. The hard-line policy of Kestutis and Liubartas stopped the way for Poland toward the invasion 'of the Dnieper lowlands where Lithuanians were entrenching themselves.
The Question of Baptism. King Casimir had resorted to peaceful means as well in his negotiations with Lithuania. He thought the Lithuanian rulers would be more amenable if they became Christians and Lithuania were dependent upon Poland, that is, upon the archbishop of Gniezno in matters of faith. Casimir turned to Pope Clement VI for help; the pontiff wrote to Kestutis about the matter in 1349. The results of the correspondence are not known. The question of baptism arose for the second time in 1351. When Kestutis had marched with his troops to the border of Hungary, King Louis d'Anjou, instead of starting battle, offered to negotiate for peace and for Lithuanian acceptance of Christianity. Kestutis agreed on the condition that Hungary and Poland would keep the peace and would help Lithuania to repulse the German Order and the Tatars. The treaty was ratified by both sides and Kestutis took his oath under pagan rites. Then he, together with Louis d'Anjou, left for Hungary to be baptized, but on the third night of his journey Kestutis fled under cover of darkness and rejoined his troops. The reasons which prevented him from keeping his promise became clear during the new negotiations for his baptism.
Emperor Charles IV, having received a message that the rulers of Lithuania were not opposed in principle to baptism wrote them a letter (April 18, 1358), and afterwards sent a delegation to Lithuania under the leadership of Ernest, the Archbishop of Prague. Kestutis and Algirdas, negotiating with the delegates of the Emperor, stated these conditions: 1. The German Order should be required to withdraw from the lands which it occupied and which were still inhabited by Lithuanian tribes; 2. The Teutonic Knights were to be evacuated from Prussia to the border of the Black Sea for the purpose of containing the Tatar invasion. To meet the first condition, the boundary of Lithuania was to start near Masuria in the west, follow the Alna and Prieglius rivers as far as Aismares (Germ. Frisches Haff), along the coast of the Baltic Sea as far as the Daugava, then follow that river east as far as its tributary Aiviekste, then northeast as far as the Muscovy border. Thus, the Lithuanian rulers demanded the regions inhabited by the Prussians, Couronians, Zemgalians and Latgalians (see Balts). After the Order was transported to the Black Sea region, it was not to lay any claims or the Russian lands which “Ought simply to belong to the Lithuanians.” The Emperor's delegation, after listening to the conditions proposed by Algirdas and Kestutis, returned to inform the Emperor Charles IV. This was the end of the bargaining. It would not have been advantageous to the Emperor to abolish the powerful and at that time flourishing Order which was a part of the German Empire. But even had he so wished, the Emperor could not have forced the Teutonic Order to move. Most historians recognize the validity of the demands made by Algirdas and Kestutis, but when the Emperor refused to consider them, the negotiations for baptism fell through. Pope Gregory XI addressed the Lithuanian leaders about this matter for the last time in 1373, but his request that fighting should cease between the Lithuanians and the Christian nations did not bring any results, while the Teutonic Order continued to receive help from Western Europe.
A Domestic Quarrel. Kestutis and Algirdas as recorded in the Lithuanian Chronicles had agreed to continue their common rule through their sons. After the death of Algirdas in 1377, Kestutis recognized his nephew Jogaila and showed him the same preference granted to his father Algirdas. Vytautas, the son of Kestutis, was to succeed his father after his death. Meanwhile Kestutis, continuing the old arrangement, was to come from Trakai to the capital Vilnius to confer with Jogaila and his family. But this agreement did not last. In Vilnius there appeared a new government policy which gravely endangered the part of the country ruled by Kestutis. This was a friendly agreement between Jogaila and the Teutonic Order, which excluded the lands of Kestutis. When Kestutis found out from the Germans themselves that he was left out of a secret treaty, in the summer of 1381 he suddenly seized the castle of Vilnius and removed Jogaila from the throne. Without seeking revenge, he merely gave his nephew the rule of his family lands, Kriavas and Vitebsk. He also obtained from Jogaila a writ of abdication and a promise not to raise arms against his uncle. In this manner Kestutis formally became the Grand Prince of Lithuania.
After this coup Kestutis gathered his forces against the Teutonic Order. In 1382 he marched to Prussia twice, reaching the rivers Alna and Prieglius. In April of 1382 he attacked the castle of Jurbarkas on the banks of the Nemunas river. He abandoned the attack, having to march swiftly to the southeast to the land of Novgorod Seversk. There his nephew Kaributas had risen against him. Kestutis left his son Vytautas in Lithuania in charge of Vilnius and Trakai. On June 12, 1382 there was another coup in Vilnius which returned Jogaila to the throne. Trakai was seized by his brother Skirgaila with the help of the Teutonic Knights. Vytautas, meanwhile, fled to Gardinas where he met with his father Kestutis. They combined their armies and on Aug. 3, 1382 reached Trakai where they were to attack the forces of Jogaila, Skirgaila and the Teutonic Knights. It is not known how big were the respective armies, but considering the fact that Jogaila first suggested negotiations, it is probable that Kestutis was more powerful. He agreed to negotiate and come to the camp of Jogaila after he was solemnly assured under oath that he would be able freely to return to his troops. When night came, it was announced to the troops of Kestutis that they could disperse because the rulers had reached an agreement and left for Vilnius to finish negotiations. Kestutis and his son Vytautas were arrested. Kestutis was taken to the castle of Kriavas (Kreva) and there died on Aug. 14, 1382. Vytautas was able to escape.
It is not possible to prove whether Jogaila, Skirgaila, or their mother Juliana was the instigator of the treachery causing the death of Kestutis. Rumors were spread that he had killed himself in the castle of Kriavas. Some historians exonerate Jogaila on these grounds, but his indirect collaboration in his uncle's death is not to be denied.
Personality of Kestutis. In one of the chronicles of the Teutonic Order (Die Altere Hochmeisterchronik), we find an account of how Kestutis escaped imprisonment by the Order in 1361, with the following description of him: “Kestutis was a brave and just man. When he was prepared to attack the lands of the Order, he would give due warning and then arrive promptly. If he made a treaty with the Order, he would diligently keep it. He would show great respect to those brothers of the Order who appeared brave and courageous to him.” The Polish chronicler Dlugosz wrote: “Even though a pagan, Kestutis was a brave man... of all the sons of Gediminas he was the most sagacious and active. The fact, that he was educated, humane, and a man of his word (civilis, humanus et verax in sermone), contributed most to his glory.” Chronicles mentioned that after a battle he would restrain his men from cruelty and improper behavior toward the prisoners. All sources emphasize his dynamic personality, his warlike spirit and his courage. Meeting with the knights from Western Europe and coming in contact with the Order, Kestutis became familiar with their culture, new methods and improvements in warfare, and promptly would adapt them for his own use. At the same time he remained faithful to his national traditions and religion. Kestutis was the last in the line of great Lithuanian princes who did not accept the Christian faith. His body was burned in Vilnius under pagan rites.
As far as it is possible to determine from historical sources, Kestutis had six sons (Patirgas, Vaidotas, Butautas, Vytautas, Tautvilas, and Zygimantas) and three daughters (Miklause, Danute, Ringaile); all three were married to Christian princes. Among Lithuanians, there still exists a romantic legend about Kestutis and his wife Birute which originated in the 16th century.
Even though the coup of 1345 was carried out by Kestutis, he gave up the capital and the headship of the government to his brother Algirdas. This did not prevent either one from ruling independently in his own lands. To the amazement of historians, this confinement of property and political influence by the brothers did not divide the government itself and did not destroy its monarchic character. This harmony was supported by the character of both rulers and their ability to place matters of state before their personal ambitions.


   ©  Lithuanian Art Museum,                                                                                                                                                                           Page update 10.25.17
    ©  Palanga Botanical Park,                                                                                                    
    © Information Centre of Samogitian Cultural Association