Vytautas the Great

Image - Grand Duke Vytautas the Great (17th-century painting).

Vytautas the Great (Polish: Witold; Ukrainian: Витовт; Vytovt), b 1350 in Lithuania, d 27 October 1430 in Trakai fortress, on an island in Lake Galvė, Lithuania. Grand duke of Lithuania from 1392; grandson of Gediminas and brother of Žygimantas. Vytautas stood for Lithuanian independence and allied with the Teutonic Knights to oppose the union with Poland that was advocated by his cousin, King Władysław II Jagiełło (Jogaila). In 1384, fearing the growing power of the order, he was reconciled with Jagiełło, who granted him the rule of Hrodna, Berestia, and Podlachia. After the death of Liubartas (1385) he annexed Volhynia, including Lutsk and Volodymyr-Volynskyi. When Jagiełło chose Skirgaila to rule Lithuania (1387), however, Vytautas again enlisted the support of the Teutonic Knights, as well as Muscovy. He besieged and devastated Vilnius, and in 1392 he was again reconciled with Jagiełło, whereupon he was granted the rule of the whole Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

In order to strengthen his position Vytautas began taking over the lands of Ukrainian and Belarusian appanage princes, and in 1396 he deposed Jagiełło's brother, the Kyivan prince Volodymyr, son of Algirdas. He also defeated the princes of Podilia, Volhynia, and Chernihiv and became resolutely anti-Muscovite in his policies. He signed treaties with the princes of Tver, Riazan, and Pronsk, who were against Moscow's centralist policy, and in 1395 he took over Smolensk, an important strategic and commercial center. Vytautas built fortifications in the south and expanded the borders of the Lithuanian-Ruthenian state, particularly to the south and east, where they reached the Black Sea between the lower Dnieper River and the Dnister River. He was defeated in 1399, however, at the Vorskla River in a joint Ukrainian-Belarusian-Lithuanian campaign against the Tatars, and the defeat forced him into another alliance with Poland. It took Vytautas nearly 10 years to regain control of the eastern lands. He recaptured Smolensk in 1404, and in 1410 he and Jagiełło crushed the Teutonic Knights at Tannenberg, and halted their eastward advance. The joint victory strengthened the Polish-Lithuanian union, and the formal Union of Horodlo was signed in 1413. During the remainder of his rule Vytautas contributed to the expansion of trade and artisanship in Lithuanian-ruled territory, and he introduced Magdeburg law in many of its cities. But the limitation of the political rights of Orthodox citizens aroused considerable hostility against Vytautas among Ukrainian and Belarusian noblemen, who turned to Švitrigaila for support.

Arkadii Zhukovsky

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]

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