The Battle on the Ice was fought between the Republic of Novgorod led by prince Alexander Nevsky and the crusader army led by the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights on April 5, 1242, at Lake Peipus. The battle is notable for having been fought largely on the frozen lake, and this gave the battle its name.
The battle was a significant defeat sustained by the crusaders during the Northern Crusades, which were directed against pagans and Eastern Orthodox Christians rather than Muslims in the Holy Land. The crusaders’ defeat in the battle marked the end of their campaigns against the Orthodox Novgorod Republic and other Russian territories for the next century.
The event was glorified in Sergei Eisenstein’s historical drama film Alexander Nevsky, released in 1938, which created a popular image of the battle often mistaken for the real events. Sergei Prokofiev turned his score for the film into a concert cantata of the same title, with “The Battle on the Ice” being its longest movement.
Hoping to exploit Novgorod’s weakness in the wake of the Mongol and Swedish invasions, the Teutonic Knights attacked the neighboring Novgorod Republic and occupied Pskov, Izborsk, and Koporye in autumn 1240. When they approached Novgorod itself, the local citizens recalled to the city 20-year-old Prince Alexander Nevsky, who they had banished to Pereslavl earlier that year. During the campaign of 1241, Alexander managed to retake Pskov and Koporye from the crusaders.
In the spring of 1242, the Teutonic Knights defeated a detachment of Novgorodians about 20 km south of the fortress of Dorpat (Tartu). Led by Prince-Bishop Hermann of Dorpat, the knights and their auxiliary troops of local Ugaunian Estonians then met with Alexander’s forces by the narrow strait (Lake Lämmijärv or Teploe) that connects the north and south parts of Lake Peipus (Lake Peipus proper with Lake Pskovskoe).
On April 5, 1242. Alexander, intending to fight in a place of his own choosing, retreated in an attempt to draw the often over-confident Crusaders onto the frozen lake. The crusader forces likely numbered around 2,600, including 800 Danish and German knights, 100 Teutonic knights, 300 Danes, 400 Germans and 1,000 Estonian infantry. The Russians fielded around 5,000 men: Alexander and his brother Andrei’s bodyguards (druzhina), totalling around 1,000, plus 2000 militia of Novgorod, 1400 Finno-Ugrian tribesman and 600 horse archers.
The Teutonic knights and crusaders charged across the lake and reached the enemy, but were held up by the infantry of the Novgorod militia. This caused the momentum of the crusader attack to slow. The battle was fierce, with the allied Russians fighting the Teutonic and crusader troops on the frozen surface of the lake. A little after two hours of close quarters fighting, Alexander ordered the left and right wings of his army (including cavalry) to enter the battle. The cavalry included some Mongol horse archers. The Teutonic and crusader troops by that time were exhausted from the constant struggle on the slippery surface of the frozen lake. The Crusaders started to retreat in disarray deeper onto the ice, and the appearance of the fresh Novgorod cavalry made them retreat in panic.
It is commonly said that “the Teutonic knights and crusaders attempted to rally and regroup at the far side of the lake, however, the thin ice began to give way and cracked under the weight of their heavy armour, and many knights and crusaders drowned”; but Donald Ostrowski in “Alexander Nevskii’s “Battle on the Ice”: The Creation of a Legend” contends that the part about the ice breaking and people drowning was a relatively recent embellishment to the original historical story. He cites a large number of scholars who have written about the battle, Karamzin, Solovev, Petrushevskii, Khitrov, Platonov, Grekov, Vernadsky, Razin, Myakotin, Pashuto, Fennell and Kirpichnikov, none of whom mention the ice breaking up or anyone drowning when discussing the battle on the ice. After analysing all the sources Ostrowski concludes that the part about ice breaking and drowning appeared first in the 1938 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein.
According to the Novgorod First Chronicle,
Prince Alexander and all the men of Novgorod drew up their forces by the lake, at Uzmen, by the Raven’s Rock; and the Germans and the Estonians rode at them, driving themselves like a wedge through their army. And there was a great slaughter of Germans and Estonians… they fought with them during the pursuit on the ice seven versts short of the Subol [north-western] shore. And there fell a countless number of Estonians, and 400 of the Germans, and they took fifty with their hands and they took them to Novgorod.
According to the Livonian Order’s Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, written in the late 1340s,
The [Russians] had many archers, and the battle began with their bold assault on the king’s men [Danes]. The brothers’ banners were soon flying in the midst of the archers, and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then the Brothers’ army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily sixty men for every one German knight. The Brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down. Some of those from Dorpat escaped from the battle, and it was their salvation that they fled. Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured.
The legacy of the battle, and its decisiveness, lies in the fact that it halted the eastward expansion of the Teutonic Order and established a permanent border line through the Narva River and Lake Peipus dividing Eastern Orthodoxy from Western Catholicism. The knights’ defeat at the hands of Alexander’s forces prevented the crusaders from retaking Pskov, the linchpin of their eastern crusade. The Novgorodians succeeded in defending Russian territory, and the crusaders never mounted another serious challenge eastward. Alexander was canonised as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1574.
In 1983, a revisionist view proposed by historian John L. I. Fennell argues that the battle was not as important, nor as large, as has often been portrayed. Fennell claimed that most of the Teutonic Knights were by that time engaged elsewhere in the Baltic, and that the apparently low number of knights’ casualties according to their own sources is indicative of the small magnitude of the encounter. Russian historian Alexander Uzhankov suggested that Fennell distorted the picture by ignoring many historical facts and documents. In order to stress the importance of the battle, he cites two papal bulls of Gregory IX, promulgated in 1233 and 1237, which called for a crusade to protect Christianity in Finland against her neighbours. The first bull explicitly mentions Russia. The kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark and the Teutonic Order built up an alliance in June 1238, under the auspices of Danish king Valdemar II. They assembled the larger western cavalry force of their time. Another point mentioned by Uzhankov is the 1243 treaty between Novgorod and the Teutonic Order, where the knights abandoned all claims to Russian lands. Uzhankov also emphasizes, with respect to the scale of battle, that for each knight deployed on the field there were eight to 30 combatants, counting squires, archers and servants.