The Teutonic Order (German: Deutschritter Orden, Latin: Ordo domus Sanctæ Mariæ Theutonicorum) was a crusading order of knights under Roman Catholic religious vows which was formed at the end of the 12th century in Palestine to give medical aid to pilgrims to the holy places. They received Papal orders for crusades to take and hold Jerusalem for Christianity. They were based at Acre.
When the mission of the order in Palestine was nearing its end, the Teutonic Knights moved their headquarter to Venice. Despite the fact, that their mission of conquering the Holy land was ended, they wanted to introduce the idea of religious crusades to Eastern Europe, on the border with pagan nations. The Knights offered their services to the local Christian rulers posing as religiously motivated mercenaries. Nevertheless, they hoped that using their influence in the Holy Roman Empire could help them become territorial proprietors of the newly conquered lands.
In 1211 Andrew II of Hungary accepted their services. They were granted the district of Burzenland in Transylvania. Andrew had been involved in negotiations for the marriage of his daughter with the son of Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia. The latter's vassals included the family of Hermann of Salza, the new master of the Teutonic Order. Led by a brother called Theoderich, they defended the Kingdom of Hungary from the neighbouring Cumans. In 1224 they petitioned Pope Honorius III to be placed directly under the authority of the papal see, rather than the Kingdom of Hungary. King Andrew responded by expelling them in 1225
At the same time Konrad I Mazowiecki, ruler of part of Poland, suffered when the Culmland was attacked by the Prussians, a pagan Baltic people. Konrad hired the Knights to defend this province and conquer Prussia, giving them the Culmland as a fief (1226) for the time until the conquest was over. The Order's conquest of Prussia was accomplished with great bloodshed over more than 50 years, during which new cities were founded as bases for war and administration, later becoming centres of trade. The Order didn't want to give back once conquered and baptised territories, instead it was converted into Teutonic Order state, which in principle was against the rules of a Chivalric Order.
The Order ruled over much of the Baltic for several centuries, losing power during the late Middle Ages with the rise of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania. The Order became involved in a series of wars against Poland and Lithuania. The biggest battle of the Teutonic Knights was the Battle of Tannenberg (1410) (in Polish, Grunwald, in Lithuanian - Zalgiris), which they lost.
In 1454 gentry and the burghers of western Prussia rose up against the Order in the "War of the Cities" or Thirteen Years War, at the end of which the order recognized the Polish crown rights over Prussia's western half (subsequently Royal Prussia) while retaining eastern Prussia under nominal Polish overlordship (Second Treaty of Thorn, 1466). Eastern Prussia (subsequently Ducal Prussia) was also lost to the Order when in 1525 its grand master, Albert of Brandenburg, converted to Lutheranism and assumed the rank of hereditary Duke of Prussia.
The new Grand Magistery was then established in Württemberg and members of the Habsburg family continued as grand masters over the Order's considerable holdings in Germany until 1809, when the Order lost its last secular holdings. The order continued to exist, headed by Habsburgs through the First World War, and today operates primarily as a charitable organization.
Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order, 1191-present
The Order and its relations with its neighbours (especially Poland) are the main motive in a novel by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz Krzyzacy (The Teutonic Knights).