Henry Bolingbroke’s Reise –
the adventures of a young nobleman
in Eastern Prussia
My dad came from the area of Eastern Prussia which is now part of Russia. He grew up in Insterburg (now Chernyakhovsk)[i], meaning the fortress on the river Inster. The town is situated approx. 90 km to the east of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). My dad had to leave in his teens, when the Soviets came, and never had a chance to visit again, as the area was a military zone, which until the end of the Soviet Union was closed to non-Russians.
When trying to find out more about my father’s background, I was quite intrigued when I read that more than 600 years ago this town had been visited by a future English king: Henry Bolingbroke, earl of Derby, who was to take the throne as Henry IV nine years later. In the later division between the Houses of York and Lancaster, Henry IV would be counted as the first Lancastrian king. However, not to be biased, a football club in Insterburg, founded in 1921, was called the “Sportverein Yorck”.
In the spring of 1390, after taking took part in an international feat of arms at St Inglevert near Calais, the 23-year-old Henry Bolingbroke was wondering what to do next. So he came up with the idea of going on crusade. Originally he planned to travel to “Africa” (i.e. Tunesia), but was also considering Prussia. Due to the medieval equivalent of visa problems, the Tunesian plan did not work out. So he set off to join the Teutonic Knights on a Reise. The German word just means ‘journey’, but in this context it refers to a crusading campaign against the Lithuanians. Henry might also have been influenced by memories of his grandfather’s trip to Prussia in 1351-52.
These crusading journeys by the Teutonic knights to fight their non-Christian neighbours had a long tradition and the blessing of the church, giving young European nobles the opportunity to say they had been on crusade and to follow their ideas of chivalry. These Reisen were organised twice each year, the main one in winter (leaving on Candlemass, 2 February). The summer trip left on 15 August, the Day of the Assumption of Mary. They lasted from two or three weeks to ten weeks, depending on how long the food supplies held.
However, by the time Henry set off , the official reason for the crusade did not really hold true any longer. Since 1386, the grand duke of Lithuania, Jagiello, had ruled as king of Poland through his marriage to Jadwiga, queen of Poland. Three days before marrying Jadwiga, he had converted to Christianity. He then started Christianising Lithuania. Maybe the reason for this trip was not entirely Christian fervour, but also adventurousness by a young nobleman and his mates.
Henry was accompanied by a large group of friends and retainers, among them Thomas Swynford, the eldest son of his father’s long-time mistress (and eventual third wife), Katherine de Roet, by her first husband.
After stocking up on food and everything else necessary for the trip, they embarked at Boston, Lincs. on 19 July 1390 and landed at Rixhöft (now Rozewie, Poland) on 8 August. As they were rather late for the traditional start of the summer campaign, they had to get moving. From Rixhöft they travelled via Putzig (now Puck, Poland) to Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), continuing on to Königsberg, where they arrived on 16 August.
From Königsberg, they set off on the Reise proper towards Lithuania. The Teutonic Knights had in 1336 started building a fortress at Insterburg, replacing a former Prussian fortress (destroyed in 1256). The new castle served as the departure point for the campaigns against Lithuania. Though the fortress had been destroyed by the Lithuanians in 1376/77, it was soon rebuilt. At the time of Henry’s visit, the settlement around the castle probably was still fairly small, it would only be recognised as a town in 1541.
Our travellers arrived in Insterburg on 21 August, where they rested for a day or two, before setting off into the “wilderness”. Their first destination was Wilna (Vilnius). On the way at Kowno (Kaunas), they encountered a Lithuanian force. In the fighting, one of Henry’s knights, John Loudeham, was killed at the age of 25. His body was taken back for burial in the Marienkirche (St Mary’s Church) in Königsberg.
They arrived at Wilna on 4 September and attacked the town, but managed only to take the outer, less fortified part. It was one of Henry’s men, who raised the flag of St George at Wilna. The citadel held firm, and after five weeks the army, weakened by disease and shortage of gunpowder, had to retreat. They returned to Königsberg, again via Insterburg.
Henry and his men stayed at Königsberg for the next three months, celebrating Christmas there. Henry took part in a banquet, the Ehrentisch (table of honour), held for foreign knights, who were chosen by heralds for their prowess in arms. This was one of the main attractions of a Reise. Henry’s expenses on gambling (£69), gifts and feasting were far greater than those for good works and alms (£12). His hosts presented him with presents, among them a bear, but no financial assistance.
On 9 February 1391, Henry and his men set off back to Danzig. They arrived on 15 February and spent Lent and Easter there (Easter Sunday was 26 March), leaving on 31 March to return home. He eventually arrived in the beginning of May in “excellent health and spirits”.[ii] He also brought some souvenirs: 3 little bears, peacocks, falcons and several Lithuanian boys, whom he had bought presumably to bring them up as Christians. The trip had cost the enormous amount of nearly £4000, the bill being footed by Henry’s father, John of Gaunt.
Henry seems to have enjoyed his trip so much that a year later he returned to Prussia. He arrived in Danzig exactly two years after his first arrival, on 10 August 1392, only to learn that the Teutonic knights had abandoned their campaign that year after making peace with the Lithuanian king of Poland. The group from England hung around Danzig for two weeks, evidently getting bored, as his soldiers killed two men in a brawl. They went on to Königsberg, where the decision not to go on a crusade was confirmed. The Teutonic knights gave Henry the considerable sum of £400 to help cover his expenses. However, the group had come here for adventure, so just going home does not seem to have been on the cards. Henry changed his plans and went – in style – on a pilgrimage through Poland, Bohemia, Austria and Italy, where he and his men boarded ships for the Holy Land instead. Henry spent more than a week in Palestine making sightseeing trips to the holy places and making offerings. This second trip cost at least £4849.
Henry seems to have retained positive memories of his adventures in Prussia and when, as king, he received envoys from Prussia in 1410, he would tell him that he was “a child of Prussia”,[iii] foreshadowing John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner”.
Brown, H.S., ‘Henry IV (1367–1413)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Sept 2010 [last accessed online 3 Jan. 2016]
Heise, J.A., ‘The Union of Jadwiga and Jagiello’, (1999). Available at URL: http://gallowglass.org/jadwiga/SCA/slavic/jadwiga.wawel.html [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
Jestrzemski, D., ‘Späterer Britenherrscher im Deutschordensland’, Preußische Allgemeine Zeitung (5 February 2012). URL: http://www.preussische-allgemeine.de/nachrichten/artikel/spaeterer-britenherrscher-im-deutschordensland-1.html [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
Mortimer, I., The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England’s Self-Made King. Random House, 2013
Rigby, S.H., ‘The Knight’, in: Historians on Chaucer: The “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, ed. by Stephen H. Rigby. Oxford University Press, 2014, pp.42-62
Toulmin Smith, L., Expeditions to Prussia and the Holy Land Made by Henry Earl of Derby in the years 1390-1 and 1392-3. Camden Society, Westminster, 1894. Available at URL: https://archive.org/details/expeditionstopru00kyngrich [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
Stretton, G., ‘Some Aspects of Medieval Travel: Notably Transport and Accommodation, with Special Reference to the Wardrobe Accounts of Henry Earl of Derby, 1390-1393 Alexander Prize, 1924’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol.7 (1924), pp.77-97
Tuck, A., ‘Henry IV and Chivalry’, in: Henry IV: The Establishment of the Regime, 1399-1406, ed. by G. Dodd and D. Biggs. Boydell & Brewer, 2003, pp.55-72
Tyerman, C., England and the Crusades, 1095-1588. University of Chicago Press, 1996
Tyerman, C., God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Penguin UK, 2007
‘Kreuzzüge nach Preußen – Reisen‘, Reisen und Militärorganisation des Deutschen Ordens. URL: http://www.projekt.webd.pl/storys/?s=13&lang=DE [last accessed 3 Jan. 2016]
Photo credits: „Замок Инстенбург (вид на двор)“ by Belchen-ok – Own Work. Lizcensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%97%D0%B0%D0%BC%D0%BE%D0%BA_%D0%98%D0%BD%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%B1%D1%83%D1%80%D0%B3_(%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B4_%D0%BD%D0%B0_%D0%B4%D0%B2%D0%BE%D1%80).JPG
[i] As in most of the literature on Henry’s journey, the German names are used, I have kept them in this post. The present day names are included to make it easier to follow the route on maps.
[ii] Westminster Chronicle, pp.458-459, quoted in Tuck
[iii] Tuck, A., p.70