Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Alexander Nevsky defended the Russian land of Novgorod from Swedish invaders, checking the Swedish advance into Russian territory and allowing Novgorod’s merchants to have continued access to the Gulf of Finland through the Neva River.

Summary of Event

Alexander Nevsky’s leadership in the defense of Novgorod and other Russian lands from incursions of Swedes and Germans is well known. Metropolitan Kirill Kirill ’s Life of Alexander portrayed his hero as the savior of Orthodoxy. Twice Alexander was engaged in defense against Swedes, once along the Neva River on July 15, 1240, which explains the sobriquet “Nevsky.” Alexander’s mounted brigade surprised the encamped Swedes while infantry attacked Swedish ships in dock to prevent arrival of reinforcements. These battles (or skirmishes, as one authority avers) were part of the continuing struggle between Russians and Scandinavians for control of the Finnish and Karelian lands. Other sources, however, argue that such battles were designed by Grand Prince Yaroslav Vsevolodovich Yaroslav Vsevolodovich to stop the territorial and religious plans of Germans, Danes, and Swedes who hoped to absorb Novgorod at a time when it was weakened by Tatar rule. Yaroslav’s action may have been designed to enhance Novgorod’s military dependence on the “downstream” princes of Vladimir on whom it was already dependent for food. [kw]Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders (July 15, 1240) [kw]Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders, Alexander (July 15, 1240) Alexander Nevsky, Saint Novgorod, Swedish invasion of Russia;July 15, 1240: Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders[2390] Expansion and land acquisition;July 15, 1240: Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders[2390] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 15, 1240: Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders[2390] Religion;July 15, 1240: Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders[2390] Government and politics;July 15, 1240: Alexander Nevsky Defends Novgorod from Swedish Invaders[2390] Alexander Nevsky Birger Jarl Kirill Yaroslav Vsevolodovich

Yaroslav, father of Alexander, sent him to become prince of Novgorod, a commercial city-state north of Vladimir. Unlike most Russian towns, Novgorod had a powerful assembly dominated by merchant lords and often divided in its allegiance to the grand principality of Vladimir to the south. Novgorod also maintained steady trade with the Hanseatic League of cities in northern Europe. Its furs, wax, walrus tusks, and woodwork were prized items at fairs. Trade;Novgorod The so-called German quarter of Novgorod was the residence of many foreign merchants who came to the city by way of the Gulf of Finland, the Neva River, Lake Ladoga, and then south to Novgorod along the Volkhov River. When, in 1240, an army of Swedes, with Finns and Danes, arrived at the mouth of the Izhora River at the spot joining the Neva, Russians in Novgorod perceived this invasion as an effort to close their access to the sea. The merchants of Novgorod also regarded this incursion as a first step toward further acquisitions south toward the city-state itself. Meanwhile, Yaroslav was concerned about the advances of Germans and Lithuanians from the west as well as the Swedes from the north.

According to most early and modern sources, when the Swedes arrived at the Neva in “very many ships,” their leader, Birger Jarl Birger Jarl , later regent to the young king of Sweden, sent news of their presence to Novgorod, challenging the entire province to take battle. The twenty-year-old prince, Alexander, summoned an army after spending many hours praying to the Blessed Virgin in the Saint Sophia Cathedral. He was impatient to wait for reinforcements from the outlying regions of the Novgorod territories as well as others from Russian territories downstream toward Vladimir. He probably doubted the ability to raise more troops given the recent Mongol destruction of Russian mounted retainers. Thus Alexander began his campaign against the Swedes with a much smaller force than his opponent.

Although the encounter on July 15, 1240, is sometimes described as a skirmish by some modern writers, the description of the battle indicates that it was more than that. A certain Pelgusius, a local chieftain of a Finno-Ugric tribe at Lake Ladoga, offered to reconnoiter the Swedish encampment for Alexander. Although his tribe was pagan he was a Christian, and he told Alexander of a vision about the impending battle whereby the medieval Russian saints Boris and Gleb appeared to him with news that they intended to aid the prince against the invaders.

Despite the Swedish notification to Alexander, the fact that his armies surprised the Swedish forces in the daylight indicates that Alexander’s strategy of hasty advance without additional reinforcements may have been the correct strategy. In a plan to prevent enemy reinforcements from arriving, three Swedish vessels were sunk by Alexander’s infantry, while two others escaped with fleeing soldiers. A Swedish general was killed, and one source mentions that the Birger Jarl was even wounded by Alexander and that one of the Catholic bishops was killed. Russian horsemen killed a large number of enemy as well, although the hagiography of Alexander written by Metropolitan Kirill told of an angel of death killing a multitude of Swedish soldiers who lay along the opposite banks of the Neva where Alexander’s men had not crossed. At any rate the victory led to Alexander’s new appellation as “Nevsky” in honor of this battle.

Among the men of Novgorod who distinguished themselves on the battlefield were six: Gavrilo Oleksich, who fought the general and son of Birger; Zbyslav Yakenovich, who fought daring encounters with his battle-ax; Jacob of Polotsk, the huntsman of Prince Alexander, who charged the enemy with his sword; Mikhail, a foot soldier who led the infantry in the attack that destroyed three Swedish vessels; Savva, who stimulated his fellow soldiers to combat when he charged the big, golden-crowned tent of the enemy, cutting its central pole; and Ratmir, who died fighting when encircled by many foes. Alexander arrived back home with losses of but twenty of his men, including those well known to contemporaries such as Konstantin Lugotinits, Giuriata Pineshchinich, Nemest, and Drochilo, son of Nezdilo the tanner.

Although he was triumphant, the new popularity of Alexander was threatening to the merchant lords of Novgorod who dismissed him as their prince. Alexander, in anger, took his courtiers and family to his former home in Pereiaslavl. A few years later, when the Germans invaded the satellite region of Pskov, Novgorod pleaded with Alexander to return. He did so, and the famous battle on the ice took place on Lake Peipus as Alexander’s forces routed the German Knights of Livonia (1242). The Swedes would return again in 1247, but Alexander was then en route to the capital of the Mongols to appease their demands for conscription and taxes. The policy of appeasement was considered essential to the survival of the Russian lands, which could not have withstood simultaneously the Mongols to the south and Catholics to the west. That very year of the battle on the Neva, the Russian town of Chernigov was overwhelmed by the Mongols, as was Kiev on the Dnieper River. One year later, the Germans invaded from the west. Metropolitan Kirill thought the Catholic threat was more to be feared, since the Mongols allowed the Orthodox Church Orthodox Church;Russia to function in Russia so long as priests prayed for the khan. Did he overstate the importance of Alexander’s military defenses against the West in order to deflect criticism of the prince’s appeasement of the Tatars? In any case, in 1245 the Lithuanians attacked Russian lands from the West, seizing permanently many Russian communities.


A formal treaty of peace between the Russians and the Swedes was not signed until 1326. Nevertheless, because of the successful thwarting of the Swedes, Novgorod’s commercial prosperity and republican political organization continued, with or without the treaty, until the late fifteenth century, when the city-state was absorbed by the Muscovite state of Grand Prince Ivan III.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birnbaum, Henrik. Lord Novgorod the Great: Essays in the History and Culture of a Medieval City-State. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1981. Birnbaum agrees with Soviet researchers who believe that the Swedish regent was not at the battle on the Neva, but at the later one in 1247.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brisbane, Mark, and David Gaimster, eds. Novgorod: The Archaeology of a Russian Medieval City and Its Hinterland. London: British Museum, 2001. A brief, illustrated history of medieval Novgorod, exploring its archaeology. Includes maps and site plans.
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    The Chronicle of Novgorod. Translated by Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes. New York: AMS Press, 1970. An indispensable source for the study of Alexander’s role in Novgorod, but written from the tendentious outlook of medieval churchmen.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dukes, Paul. A History of Russia: Medieval, Modern, Contemporary, Circa 882-1996. 3d ed. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998. A look at the history of Russia, including the time of formation. Extensive bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fennell, John. The Crisis of Medieval Russia, 1200-1304. New York: Longman, 1983. A critical account that doubts the importance of the Neva encounter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Presniakov, A. E. The Formation of the Great Russian State: A Study of Russian History in the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Centuries. Translated by A. E. Moorhouse. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970. First published in 1918, this work analyzes the disarray among the Russian leaders at the time of the Mongol and Western invasions. He stresses Alexander’s family relationships and charismatic leadership.
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    xlink:type="simple">Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. “Lord Novgorod the Great” and “The Mongols in Russia.” In A History of Russia. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Two chapters, one on Alexander and the other on the Mongol influence in Russian history. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Tale of the Life and Courage of the Pious and Great Prince Alexander.” In Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales, edited by Serge A. Zenkovsky. Rev. 2d ed. New York: Dutton, 1974. Although written forty years after the events, this book remains the basic source for the era of Alexander and depicts him as the savior of the land from the Catholic West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernadsky, George. The Mongols and Russia. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1953. The classic account by the late dean of American scholars of medieval Russia. It should be read in conjunction with the revisionist version of Fennell.

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