The battle for Daugava waterway. The fall of Jersika

The place where once the city of Jersika once stood

Despite the fact that German Crusaders had no competitors for conquering the Latvian land they still had to cope with Russian interests. Russian Dukes had no intention to annex Latvian lands, but they needed the people living across river Daugava waterway to be loyal to them because it was an important waterway for trade with the West. We have seen the Russian interventions in Livonian lands in previous posts. German merchants saw the Russians as competitors for their trade interests and they urged Crusaders to persuade Crusade to the lands across the river Daugava.

At year 1206 the Crusaders sieged the Livonian castle of Sala where the present day city of Salaspils is located. The Castle of Sala was vital port point for Crusaders. At the same year the Crusaders captured Lielvārde located 20 km from Ikšķile, next was Aizkraukle located 20 km from Lielvārde. It was captured the year earlier.

20 km from Aizkraukle there was Koknese. Koknese was a large center ruled by ruler Viesceķis. He was aware that Russians of Polotsk will not protect him from the Crusaders and decided to become a vassal of Bishop Alberts. There are many questions about the nationality of Viesceķis. The Chronicle of Henry dose doesn’t give his nationality, but claims that he converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity and changed his name to Vjačelsavs. According to archaeological findings the Koknese was inhabited by Latgalians, Selonians and kriviči– meaning Russians. The Chronicle of Henry even calls Koknese the “Russian palace” (castro Ruthenico). This was because there was a Russian garrison and Russian colonists located in Koknese. Their task was protecting Koknese as an important Russian trade base. The number of Russians in Koknese was not insignificant but was noted by the Germans, because when they stormed the Koknese castle they tried not to kill them, fearing to make diplomatic conflict with the Duchy of Polotsk.

Crusaders captured Viesceķis and took him to Riga, but released him and let him go back to Koknenese as their vassal. With him they send Crusaders and builders to Koknese to build a stone castle there. But neither Viesceķis nor Russians were not ready to accept the new rulers and attacked the Germans who were busy building stone walls. But Bishop Albert assembled army of 300 men and head straight to Koknsee. Viesceķis requested Duke Vladimir to help, but he left him and his Russian colonists alone. When the Crusaders came the frightened Russian merchants took all their belongings and burned down Koknese castle and left in a hurry. Selonians and Latgalians were forced to flee in forest hideouts. At year 1209 Koknese fully became a part of Crusader land and the new stone castle was built there.

At year 1208 the Crusaders attacked the Selonian castle of Sēlpils. Selonians made alliances with Lithuanians and that was danger for Crusaders. Crusaders together with subjected Livonians and Latgalians stormed the Sēlpils and forced Selonians to give up. Selonian resistance was quelled and it marked the end of this tribe.

Lielvārde, Koknese, Sēlpils was an important gain for the Crusaders, but the great castle and city of Jersika was still free from Crusader rule. It was vital to capture this basic center, for it was richest early Latvian castle and capturing it will make the whole waterway of Daugava under Crusader control.

The Chronicle of Henry calls Jersika a “city” (ad civitatem). Jersika was a large center protected by a wooden wall and fence. There was Russian garrison and Russian merchant colonist like in Koknese. There were wooden Orthodox Church and many trade markets. It was a city for early Latvian measures but was not close to Riga as there were no stone buildings there. The ruler of Jersika was Visvaldis, he was engaged with Lithuanian ruler’s Daugeruth daughter therefore an ally with Lithuanians against Crusaders. Together they attacked Riga at 1203 forcing Germans to organize Crusade against Jersika.

Visvaldis

Visvaldis the ruler of Jersika

The attack began in the summer of 1209. The attack was unexpected for Visvaldis and Crusaders entered Jersika with ease. They killed the local fighters, pillaged the city and even ruined the Orthodox Church taking all its sacred belongings. Visvaldis and his comrades managed to flee, but his wife was captured and taken to Riga. Crusaders burned down Jersika and told Visvaldis that he must head to Riga to make peace with Bishop Albert to get his wife back.  He did so and signed the act of capitulation becoming a vassal of Bishop Alberts.

Jersika the largest early Latvian center was burned to the ground and Crusaders had achieved their goal- the river Daugava waterway to the Polotsk was theirs. It was done in 10 years. The first phase of the Crusades in Latvian land ended. Now they were strong enough to attack Semigallians and Curonians.

Selected sources:

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

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

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