First Crusaders in Latvia and the founding of Riga

When the Crusaders came to Latvian land they had to look for a suitable place to establish a base of operations. Since the mouth of river Daugava was a perfect place for merchants and port making they first landed on  the shores of Riga Bay and sailed in the inner waters of the Daugava. The place around the mouth of Daugava was perfect because it was located in the center between territories of four Latvian tribes and could be supported from Germany by supply ships.

The Christian missionary Meinard came along with merchants who knew the land before and brought him to the Livonian town of Ikšķile. Ikšķile is located further from Riga, the German could not get the permission to establish a trade base there because they had to deal with trade rivals from the Duchy of Polock. The local Livonians had to pay fees to Polock or risk bloody attack.  This was not a full time enslavement and the annexation of Livonian lands from Polock. It was rather close to protection payment as practiced by criminal gangs to extract money from weak shopkeepers. The Russians did not interfere much in local Livonian politics or their religion.  The Germans on the other hand wanted more power on Livonians mainly their land.

Meinard became the first Bishop on the Ikšķile he built the stone first church and stone palace in Latvia. There was records of Scandinavian built wooden church in Courland but its remains were never found. There was a wooden Orthodox Church in Jersika but no stone buildings built by Latvians themselves are not found until this day. The church of Ikšķile now lies in ruins and is located on the separate island in the result of flooding done by the Riga Hydroelectric power plant.

ikskiles baznica

Ruins of Church of Ikskile

As already mentioned in some previous post the mission of baptizing local Livonians was not successful. When Livonians discovered that Germans will be another oppressor far worse than Russians, they rejected the Christianity by simply “washing it away” in Daugava. Meinard was forced to ask to the Pope for permission to  organize Crusade. But he died in 1196 giving his job to his heir Bishop Berthold. He started to organize Crusade and managed to get justification for his war by getting a bulla (the sacred church delclaration against its enemies) against Livonian issued by the Pope. In year 1198  he on the horseback  accompanied by knights approached Livonian castle of Sala. He demanded Livonians to baptize immediately. The Livonians refused and Berthold returned at the “spot of Riga” (ad locum Rige), because the castle was located on the island and Berthold needed ships to attack it. Livonians realising the danger decided to make preventive attack by joining forces and surprise the crusaders at their weakspot. The battle resulted in defeat on both sides- Livonians were forced to flee, but the Berthold was killed. Livonians were forced to pay fees but Crusaders needed a new much better leader.

In year 1198 the new more greater and powerful leader came to Latvian lands. The new Bishop Albert had everything to manage Crusade against Latvian Pagans. At this same year the new Roman Pole Innocent III recognized as the most glorious Middle Age Pope was elected. They both had much in common- they willed for supreme power, they both organized Crusades and were far better diplomats than secular kings of their time. However they both suffered a crucial failure; Pope Innocent III was swindled by greedy Venetian merchants who diverted the Fourth Crusade (1204) from the Holy Land to Constantinople compromising the whole idea of Crusades because a Christian capitol was destroyed in the name of Holy War. Same thing happened to Albert when he was forced to give protection rights to the greedy knights of the Brothers of the sword. Albert outlived Innocent III by 14 years (Innocent III died in 1216) dying in 1229. The last resting place of both great church leaders is unknown until this day.

Albert did not rush to Latvian land; he wanted to “study the circumstances without the help of army first”. He first went to Gotland where he recruited men for his Crusade and then came back to Germany where he looked for more Crusaders. The Pope Innocent III issued bulla against Livonian barbarians “who gives the God’s honour to dull creatures and bushes”. In 1200 he finally entered the Latvian land visiting Crusader outposts at Ikšķile and Sala. He was attacked by Livonians on the way and escaped defeat with difficulty because according to Chronicle of Henry he was not supported by German knights. This however doubtful giving question where the 500 German knights whom Albert brought with him were hiding when Albert was in danger? That can be more a propagandist claim by Chronicler Henry making Albert’s achievements too great. The historian Indriķis Šterns insists that the story of Bishop Albert recruiting more than hundred men to Latvian land is a propagandist claim.  He rather entered the river Daugava alone without Crusaders or with smaller amount of them.

Albert at year 1200 already started to move to the site of Riga. The German merchants already may have even a wooden settlement there. Albert knowing that this is the best spot decided to establish his base there. The site of Riga was not first settled by Germans- there were small Livonian villages there already. He requested the Pope Innocent III for giving monopoly rights to the port of Riga.  It was done but the document is not preserved until this day, giving no details about it. But it sure was the juridical basis for Albert to start “building the city of Riga” in  1201 as claimed in Chronicle of Henry. So the year 1201 is officially considered as the founding date of Latvia. At year 2001 Riga celebrated the 800 year birthday. Albert moved his residence from Ikšķile to Riga. The first citizens of Riga were German merchants, Russian merchants, clergyman and Crusader knights as well as local Livonians. Riga started as a small German trade settlement absorbing nearby Livonian villages, gaining more emigrants from Germany and Western Europe and becoming a strong natural center of Latvian land. Riga has no clear date of founding because there were settlements before 1201 and there is no official founding document. The Bishop Albert also cannot be clearly called as the founder of Riga because he in reality just moved his residence to Riga were first settlements were already built. As Indriķis Šterns insists Riga can be compared to Rome which also started as an group of small settlements joined by the Romans, and founded with no documents and claimed to be built by two brothers Romulus and Rem. However this does not prevent us from considering that Riga founded in 1201 by Bishop Albert because the every good legend has the legacy of making history.


Commemorative coin of 800 years of Riga







Selected sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Caune, Andris, Ose, Ieva. (2010) Latvijas viduslaiku mūra baznīcas : 12. gs. beigas – 16. gs. sākums : enciklopēdija. Riga: Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.



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