Prince Niklot – Polabian Chronicles
Small note before we begin.
In the times we write about – on the breaking point between the death of natural faiths and the rise of Christianity, there is something that may not be clear for a modern reader. Some rulers are referred to as kings, whereas some are referred to as princes, even if there was no difference between their roles. Well, the thing is that the title of king was reserved for Christians only. That’s why all “pagan” rulers are called “princes”. On the other hand, the title konung in Scandinavian sources is widely used, not only for actual rulers, but also for generals or even lower military commanders, if they behaved or looked like kings in the eyes of the witnesses.
For the purpose of the article, we will stay faithful to the official division.
So let’s look closer at what we know about him and his life.
Prince Niklot can be described as a tragic character. He is the most famous defender of the “Old Gods” and of Slavdom, and he was also the founder of the last dynasty of Weligrad and the first dynasty of Meklemburg. His descendants ruled Meklemburg for thousand years… as the zealots of an entity we now know as Germany. Meklemburg is a straight Old German translation of the name Weligrad.
Niklot appears in the sources as Niclotus. He was a voivoda (a military leader) of prince Swinik so he must have been local nobility. Swinik was the last of the main line of the Obodritic dynasty. He took over the throne after his father when he was fifteen but he was assassinated by Saxons a few months later. Weligrad was a country of many tribes controlled by the Obodrites and Niklot was a pure blooded Obodrite. Niklot had a brother, Lubomir, and three sons – Przybysław, Wracisław and Przesław. He took over the throne after the previous dynasty without any bloodshed or power struggles so his talents must have been already widely known. He was also a very religious disciple of Prowe, the highest of their Gods, and he realized that “Christianisation” was just an excuse for Saxon expansion, extermination of whole nations and conquest. In sources from those times, when “Germans” write about successful Christianisation, they call it… defeating an enemy.
Niklot was a sworn enemy of Christianity. And people wanted to follow him.
We have the year 1129. Niklot’s first decision was alliance with Przybysław Budiwojowic, prince of Polabians, the tribe that lived on the border with Saxony. (Przybysław was probably a distant relative of Racibor I the Gryffite). The alliance was made against Kanut Lavard who ruled over a Slavic tribe called Vagri just next to the Obodrites and Polabians. Kanut was the son of a Danish king, yet he never became king himself because the throne was taken by his uncle. One year later, Niklot and Przybysław attacked his territory. He could never win on his own, so he asked the Saxons for help. He managed to defeat them both and put them in prison in Schleswik, only to let them out after they agreed to confirm their dependence to him and after they paid ransom. A few months later, Kanut was killed in an ambush by his cousin Magnus in Denmark.
Niklot split his kingdom with Budiwojowic leaving for himself the coastal lands of the Obodriti and Varni tribes, a part of Weligrad under the name of Obodrsk. In 1130 Niklot became dependent on king Lotar from Supplinburg but he remained independent from Saxons. The next stage of his plans was to reconquer the neighbouring tribes, which he achieved in less than a decade. This decade was also a time of peace and stability on the “German” border of Weligrad, but it was brutally ended with an invasion from count Adolf II on the lands of Vagri which were part of the territories Niklot gave to Przybysław. He was forced by his own nobles (corrupted by Adolf) to sign a pact of “friendship” with the aggressor. The Saxons were never satisfied with civilized relations. There was never a place for anybody else than “germanics” in their eyes. They did what they knew best. Genocide.
Heinrich the Lion initiated a crusade against the Baltic Slavs in which mostly Saxons and Danes participated. It was a regular war that had nothing to do with religion, but it was called a “crusade” so that the Pope would support the ambitions of Heinrich. And so, the infamous “Wendic Crusade” was launched. The Saxons went east by land and the Danes sailed to attack the coast from the north. However, Slavic spies were not sleeping. Niklot knew about the attack soon enough to send a messenger to his friends in Pomerania. The Saxons and the Danes lay siege to the stronghold of Dubin where Niklot was patiently waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
Black sails appeared on the horizon and a wind brought a howling war cry with the name of the four headed lord – Svantevith. The Pomeranians attacked the Danish fleet by total surprise. The famous crazy Rani in their wolf skins destroyed most of the enemy ships on the spot and forced the rest of what was left to run in panic. Danish troops, when they heard what happened, ran back to Denmark and Heinrich, without their support, was pushed out from Obodrsk. Niklot had everything planned even before the “crusaders” came. He had secretly armed the Vagrians and when both the Saxons and the Danes were busy in the east, the Vagri raided and destroyed the Saxon controlled Lubeck.
The ambitious plans of Heinrich ended up with signing a peace pact under the condition that “Wends” would become Christians. Niklot was playing a very dangerous game and he was playing it cold. The Saxons didn’t know that, but the Polabian forces were much weakened and Pomeranian help was the only reason why the aggressors were beaten. But Niklot knew that. In 1148 he allowed the center in Mechlin to become active again and a bishop whose mission was to turn the whole of Weligard into a Christian country to settle there. However, Niklot was openly participating in the religious holidays and festivals of his people. He couldn’t afford to make sacrifices from Christians like his Pomeranian brothers, but his message was strong enough. Christianisation of Polabia proved to be a total failure – the people would rather die than betray their Gods.
What blooded out Weligrad completely were internal struggles. In 1151 the eastern tribes fought their way to independence again. Prince Niklot knew that he could not afford to lose half of his lands and army and have another enemy on his right flank. He used his pacts with Saxons and the weakness the wife of king Heinrich the Lion had for him and asked for lending him a hand. When Heinrich was out of the kingdom, she forced the former enemy of Niklot, Adolf II, to give a few thousand of his men under Niklot’s command. The end of this intervention was sad. Niklot had to destroy their heart – the main sanctuary of their Gods. Polabians and Pomeranians were the only Slavs that were building special sanctuaries for their Gods on a big scale. They believed that there are Gods and something we could call “half-Gods”. Gods were invisible and had no boundaries. Half-Gods (like gods of Thunder, Earth, Sun) were different from Gods only in the fact that they were visible. Destroying the temple was meant to destroy their way of contact with the invisible one. Western Slavs were extremely religious: religion was the only unifying factor among the tribes that normally fought against each other. The Gods were uniting and leading Western Slavonics in common cause many times, mostly during political or religious uprisings against Christianity and “Germans”. The death of a God meant the death of the tribe. We may observe the same pattern throughout the whole history of the Western Slavs. Fall of the faith was automatically a political fall. This was just one of the examples. They were like children abandoned by parents, or, we may say that it was actually Niklot who killed one of the Slavic Gods.
From that moment, even though they were still absolutely fit and able to continue fighting successfully, their spirit was totally broken and they gave up.
As always, the Saxons weren’t satisfied with simple tributes. Heinrich the Lion was fighting with archbishop Adalberon for the right to choose the church hierarchs on the Obodritic territories and he won. That was a very hard thing to swallow for a pagan prince. Niklot was invited with other Slavonic pagan rulers to Ertheneburg over Elbe river where Heinrich was trying to persuade him to convert. The Obodrite rejected it in blasphemous and ironic words, saying that Heinrich may praise his God and that the Obodrites will praise Heinrich. About two years later, in 1158, the Saxons obviously invaded the Polabians again with their “Christianizing” mission. This time there was no help and the invaders won easily. Niklot ended up in the deepest cell of Luneburg. The sons of Niklot gathered a great army to get their father back, but first they gave an ultimatum to the Saxon king. It was either that the military power of the Obodrites was still big enough or that they were fearsome enough to use threat of invasion as a political argument. Niklot was free again as a result. So far, it seemed that whereever he walked the Gods always walked with him.
In 1159 the Danes and the Saxons started cooperating again and for similar purposes as always. Both wanted to exterminate the Obodrites. The Saxons wanted their lands back and the Danes wanted to diminish Slavonic piracy which, at certain point, had totally paralyzed trade on the Baltic Sea. At times, the Baltic Sea was called Mare Rugianorum. King of Denmark, Valdemar I, was very desperate to get rid of big Slavonic trading centers and wanted to get back control over the regional seas. He paid a lot of money for Saxon support. Their agreement was not an official act but a conspiracy. They invited the prince of Weligrad to Barforde but Niklot smelled their malicious intentions from a distance. After their ambush failed, Heinrich started acting more openly – he announced that he will end the devastating Slavic raids on Denmark.
Niklot struck first by besieging Lubeck, but this old Slavonic stronghold was, like the rest of them, impossible to conquer without help from inside or special machinery.
It was his last act of war. Niklot’s forces were unable to put up a fair fight with two enemies at once. He went east and burned all of his great military bases to the ground – he wouldn’t let his enemies have them either. He turned the strongholds in Iłów, Dubin, Swarzyn and Mechlin to ashes. Thanks to this act, when a few years later those territories were given under the administration of Saxon nobles, local Slavonics managed easily to drive them out.
Niklot was besieged in the Orle stronghold. The Danish fleet had eliminated the ships of the Obodrites and then destroyed the nearby Rostock. The Black Sails came again. When the Pomeranians clashed with the Danes, prince Niklot gathered his best men and opened the gate of his stronghold. Cavalry hit the Saxon horde with a powerful shockwave. There, among hundreds of dead Christian “Germans”, Niklot found his doorway to Navia. He had lived and died with an unbreakable devotion to his Gods and his tribe. Everything he did was by the principle of making the best possible decision for his people.
Did he know that he was fighting for a lost cause? Chroniclers say that Slavonic people preferred freedom over slavery, even if it meant paying the highest price and living in the hardest of conditions. Perhaps Niklot saw the inevitable end of his tribe but still did his best to change destiny. What we may say for sure is that when he was later looking down upon his people, from his throne among the Gods in Navia, he was certainly weeping.
But this is another story.
We would like to thank Marek Kalisiński who has contributed to Slavic Chronicles by sharing his photos. Please check out his other work by following the link above.
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