The Gediminids and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia

The dynasty of the Gediminids takes its origin from Gediminas (c.1275 – December 1341), Grand Duke of Lithuania, who succeeded to the throne after the death of his brother Vytenis in 1315 or 1316. From the 14th to the 16th century, the Gediminids reigned over the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia (GDL)  – a commonwealth that in its palmy times was Europe's largest state, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and comprising the territories of present-day Lithuania, Belarus, a significant part of Ukraine, and parts of Moldova, Poland and Russia.

Moreover, the rule of the Gediminids reached far beyond the GDL. Members of the Jagiellonian dynasty, a branch of the House of Gediminas, were Kings of Poland, Kings of Hungary and Kings of Bohemia.

Orest Subtelny (1941), a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin, calls the GDL formation an outstanding achievement, especially in view of the fact that it was accomplished in less than 150 years. He describes the conquest of Ukrainian lands by Lithuanians as not being similar to invasion of savage hordes but rather a process of penetration, inclusion and annexation.

The motto of the Lithuanian state policy was, "We don't destroy the old and don't introduce the new." Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866–1934), renowned Ukrainian historian and statesman, highlighted the ethnic and religious tolerance in the GDL. He emphasized that the Lithuanian rule was not of an "ethnographically-alien" character. Gediminas, who was a pagan, titled himself rex Letwinorum et Rutenorum, which means "king of Lithuania and Ruthenia." Three or four of his seven sons were baptized as Christian Orthodox, and his daughters married Christians. The Ruthenian language dominated at the Lithuanian court, and the culture of Rus had a significant influence on Lithuanians. To a certain extent, the GDL adopted some provisions of administrative, civil, family and criminal laws from Rus. These provisions were then evolved into the renowned Statutes of Lithuania, laying the foundations for one of Europe's first rule-of-law states.

In a way, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia was a precursor of the European Union with the latter's adherence to the unity in diversity concept.


Family of Gediminas

Gediminas Family Tree


The Grand Duchy of Lithuania – Factsheet

(Source: Русіна С., Сварник І., Войтович Л., Ващук Д., Блануца А., Черкас Б. "Україна: литовська доба 1320-1569." К.: Балтія-Друк)

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Rus and Samogitia (GDL): a state that existed in the 13th–18th centuries (until 1795). From 1395, it was in personal or dynastic union with Poland, and from 1569, in federation with Poland (Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth).

Head of state: Grand Duke (King in 1253–1263). From 1569, simultaneously King of Poland as well.

Ruling dynasties: the Houses of Gediminas (late 13th century trough 1572), Vasa (1587–1668) and Saxe (1697).

Coat of arms: Pahonia – a mounted knight armed with a sword and a shield bearing the Patriarchal cross.

Capital: Vilnius (from 1323; Kernavė and Trakai are sometimes mentioned to be the capitals before then).

Other cities: Kaunas, Grodno, Brest, Lutsk, Polotsk, Navahrudak, Kyiv, Mohyliv.

Area: 1 million square kilometers (approx. 247 million acres) in the early 15th century. This territory covered the present-day states of Lithuania (without the Klaipeda Region) and Belarus, a significant part of Ukraine, and parts of Moldova, Poland and Russia. In the late 16th century, after losing some territories to Russia and after Ukrainian voivodeships' change-over to under the reign of Poland, the area decreased down to 300,000 square kilometers.

Population: 2 million in the early 15th century (Lithuanians, 20%, and Ruthenians, 80%), 3.5 million in the mid 16th century, and 5 million in the late 18th century.

Major ethnic groups: Lithuanians, Ruthenians (ancient Belarusians and Ukrainians), Poles, and Jews.

Official languages: Latin, Ruthenian, and Polish.

State religion: Catholicism from 1387. The equality of all Christian confessions was declared in 1563; however, the real status of state religion from 1387 belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, and after 1596, though based on unequal rights, to the Greek Catholic Church as well. The two were finally equalized in rights in 1791.

Other religions: Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Reformed, Arian, Judaism, Karaism, Islam, Armenian Catholic, Old Ritualist.

Form of government: 13th–14th centuries, early Patrimonial monarchy; 15th–16th centuries, monarchy with institutions of oligarchy; 17th–18th centuries, estate representative monarchy or "the szlachta's republic" (constitutional monarchy in 1791–1793).

Supreme institutions of the state: from the late 15th century, Council of Lords; from 1566, Seim; and from 1569, Seim and Senate of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (the GDL had one-third of seats).

Administrative division: powiats and voivodeships (from 1413, Vilnius and Trakai voivodeships; from 1475, Kyiv voivodeship and then Polotsk, Vitebsk, Smolensk, and Podlaskie voivodeships; and from 1566, also Volynian, Braclaw, Brest, Minsk, and Mstislaw voivodeships).

Borders: with the Livonian Order, Livonia, Muskovy (later, Russia), Crimean Khanate, Moldova, Poland, and the Teutonic Order (later, Prussia).