The Battle of Neva

  By Rider, 31 October 2006; Revised
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In July of 1240, the Battle of Neva was held at River Neva, near the settlement of Ust-Ižora. The commanders on the fighting sides were the Swede, Jarl Birger, and the Novgorodian, Prince Aleksandr Jaroslavich.


In the early 13th century, the Germans had intruded upon the Baltics on behalf of the Pope. Their idea was to spread Christianity in the pagan areas, getting rich and powerful while doing so. The native tribes were poorly equipped and, therefore, didn't stand a chance. Thirty years after 1201, most of Northern Balticum was ruled by German dukes and bishops.   The forces from Denmark were present in Northern Estonia and had created a Duchy. The Duchy lasted for a short time, around 120 years, but the Danish rule returned to these lands some time later. The Swedes, however, had practiced their will to dominate and convert people in Finland. During the 12th century, they launched many Crusades against the Finns.  They also managed to dominate the territory for some time, but, eventually, were defeated. In 1218, the Swedes mounted an invasion of Estonia. They landed near the native fort of Lihula, conquered it, and started to take other lands nearby. However, when the fleet returned with the loot, the locals turned against the Swedes and reconquered the fort.  The Swedes did not gain any territories from the Balticum. The Swedes knew of the riches in Estonia and the Balticum, as trade routes, and they wanted to take possession of the lands around Lake Laadoga and, eventually, of Novgorod itself.

Jarl Birger, who commandeered the army, was not the king of Sweden nor would he become one.  He was to become a regent, holding the office until the king would be ready to govern.

Aleksandr Jaroslavich, however, was a noble of Rus states. He was the son of the kniaz (prince) of Vladimir. In 1236, he was called by the officials in Novgorod to take up the post of Prince at the Republic of Novgorod. Novgorod was different from other Rus states, as in most other states, the power resided fully with the prince.  In Novgorod, the Prince was elected by the people and  could be ’fired’ or released of duties. Aleksandr was, militarily, very able and ,therefore, suited the needs of Novgorod, which was a rich trading state.


The Swedish army was mostly made up of noblemen, although the Russian chronicles claimed that both the Norwegian and Finnish reinforcements were along the Swedish force. The Swedish force would be a typical northern army, hoping the infantry would win battles. However, there was definitely a contignent of unknown sizes that was of heavy cavalry.

The Novgorodian army was made up of boyars, led by Aleksandrand and by the people’s militia of Novgorod, which they summoned during troubled times. Also, the people from the city itself joined the army, enlarging it’s numbers. It is generally thought that the two armies were of similiar size, although the Swedes should have had the upper hand in numbers and in equipment.

The Beginning

When Aleksandr heard of the approaching Swedish fleet, he took command of the boyar cavalry that made up the druzhina (bodyguard), and, together with the militia, they went to the Church of St. Sophia in Novgorod and held a prayer.  Shortly thereafter, they left and started moving against the enemy with uttermost speed, for they knew how important it was to attack swiftly.

The Swedes camped at the point where the tributary of  the Ižora joins the Neva River. Their camp was surrounded by water and the forest. Aleksandr had his forces centered in the forest, lined up, and appropriately organized. Also, a small fog had arisen. The Rus forces then stormed out of the forest towards the camp. The infantry attacked aside the Neva River, and the cavalry attacked from the Ižora River.

The Battle

Painting of the Battle of Neva
Painting of the Battle of Neva
The Rus forces attacked with ease, killing all the Swedes. Birger had no time to erect any defensive buildings or to issue any orders. It was a miracle that he survived. The Russian druzhina was attacking the center of Birger’s guards, when a young boyar cut down Birger's tent, and Aleksandr almost killed him. The Russian infantry was supposed to halt the retreat to the ships, but darkness arose and Birger was able to gather his remaining forces. His skill was now shown in the concept of retreating swiftly and with all possible objects. The losses of the Swedes are unknown, but, compared to the losses of the Novgorodians, they must have been enormous. From that day on, Aleksandr Jaroslavich carried the nickname of Aleksander ’Nevski’,  meaning ’of Neva’.


Shortly after this battle, the Novgorodians issued an alliance with Sweden, resulting in neither one attacking the other. This allowed the Novgorodians to concentrate on the Germans, who were defeated soon afterwards by Aleksandr Jaroslavich in the Battle on the Ice.  It may be that, because of this battle, Aleksandr was banished from Novgorod as the boyars felt he had too much power for their tastes. Later on, he was recalled to Novgorod.