New Light on Our Famous King

On July 6, Lithuania celebrated State Day, commemorating the coronation of the nation’s first and only King Mindaugas in 1253. Little is known about the ceremony, least of all its exact date.

Mindaugas was a medieval warlord who succeeded in uniting local fiefdoms under his rule in 1236, laying the foundations for the Lithuanian state. Few details are known about his coronation as the first Lithuanian king, except that he did receive a crown from Pope Innocent IV.

Historian Rimvydas Petrauskas of Vilnius University told that there is no doubt about the fact of the coronation, because there is the pope’s document, permitting Mindaugas to be crowned, setting out the procedure, and even identifying the people to conduct it. However, a unique source, discovered a few decades ago, conventionally called Description of the World, includes the coronation of Mindaugas. The coronation is also attested to in the chronicles of the Livonian Order. But there is not much detail, not even where the ceremony took place, says Petrauskas, and “the biggest fiction in the Lithuanian history is the date”.

It is fairly certain that the ceremony took place on a Sunday in July. However, when Lithuanian leaders decided to make the coronation of Mindaugas a national holiday in 1990, history professor Edvardas Gudavičius was entrusted with studying the matter and identifying the most likely date. He suggested July 6, which has been a public holiday since 1991.

Mindaugas, King of Lithuania, as depicted in medieval chronicles

In order to receive a crown from the Pope of Rome, Mindaugas had accepted Christianity in 1251, although the majority of his subjects remained pagan. There has been much speculation as to how sincerely he embraced the new faith, or whether he was just a Christian by necessity.

According to Petrauskas, becoming a Christian king was a way for Mindaugas to win recognition for himself and his kingdom. It was essentially an affirmation of his sovereignty in that part of Europe.

The pope’s recognition meant that other Christian entities, such as the German Livonian Order, could not legitimately attack it, which was a pressing issue at the time. Kingship also established Mindaugas’ authority among local Lithuanian dukes. His primary motivation of Mindaugas was pragmatic – he needed to strengthen his rule, which was very weak. “He was the first ruler who united Lithuanian lands, the first monarch,” says Petrauskas.

Apparently, the crown was not enough – Mindaugas and his two sons were assassinated by a rival a decade later, in 1263. Even before his death, Mindaugas is was accused of abandoning Christianity and reverting back to pagan faith. However, Petrauskas cautions against accepting this as fact, since the only source is the Livonian Order. After a brief truce, the military conflict between the German knights and the Lithuanians resumed. The Germans interpreted it as evidence of Mindaugas’ abandonment of Christianity. According to Petrauskas, it was not necessarily so. The Livonian Order gave an interpretation favourable to themselves, in order to justify their actions.

After Mindaugas’ assassination, his kingdom disappeared, but the Lithuanian state persisted. Subsequent rulers pondered becoming kings, as well, most notably Grand Duke Vytautas in the 15th century. However, Mindaugas remained the only Lithuanian king, even though Lithuania came close to crowning Mindaugas II in the 20th century.

The Council of Lithuania, which declared the country’s independence in February 1918, initially considered making it a constitutional monarchy. On July 11, 1918, the Council invited Wilhelm von Urach, a German prince, to become King Mindaugas II of Lithuania. However, due to opposition both in Lithuania and Germany, the invitation was rescinded the following November. Apparently, Wilhelm von Urach was dubbed the one-hundred-day king.

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Prince Wilhelm of Urach, Count of Württemberg (Wikipedia)
An historical note: On 4 June 1918, the Council of Lithuania voted to invite Wilhelm to become the king of a newly independent Lithuania. Wilhelm agreed and was elected on July 11, 1918, taking the name Mindaugas II. The Council’s decision was based on several factors: he was Roman Catholic; he was not a member of the House of Hohenzollern, the family of the German Emperor William II, who wanted Lithuania to be a monarchy in a union with Prussia; the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 had established Germany’s power in the region, for the time being; he had had a successful military career; if the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) were to win the war, Lithuania could have expected German protection in the event of future intrusions by Russia. In addition, he was descended from Kazimieras Jogailaitis, grand duke of Lithuania, through his daughter Barbora. According to Wilhelm’s agreement with the Council of Lithuania, he had to live in Lithuania and learn to speak its language. From the beginning, Wilhelm’s reign was controversial. The four socialists of the twenty members of the Council of Lithuania left in protest. The German government did not recognize Wilhelm’s selection as king, although the claim was supported by the influential publicist and politician Matthias Erzberger, also a Catholic from Württemberg. Wilhelm never had the chance to visit Lithuania; he remained instead at Lichtenstein Castle, his home south of Stuttgart. He did start to learn the Lithuanian language, however.  Within a few months of his election, it became clear that Germany would lose World War I, and on November 2, 1918, the Council of Lithuania reversed its decision. In the tiny chapel of Lichtenstein Castle there is a framed letter from Pope Benedict XV welcoming Wilhelm’s selection as the future king of Lithuania. (Wikipedia)