Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Livonian War

Narva attacked by Russians in 1558.

15-16 century was a time of great change in Europe in both political and social fields. Feudal ways of ruling nations changed. Strong European countries became centralized with strong royal administration and armies became more powerful.  Once weak feudal nations slowly became empires. At this time the nation that was unable to make significant changes became prey to other much stronger nations.

Livonia had strong neighbors- Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was largest country in Europe spanning from the Baltic sea to the Black Sea. Sweden started to gain ambitions to control the Baltic Sea. Denmark also rivalled for mastery in the Baltic. However even stronger and dangerous enemy was tempting to get Baltic region. It was Russia. In 8-9 century Kievan Rus was the first form of the Russian Empire, but it broke in many weak duchies. Duchies such as Pskov, Polotsk and Novgorod often tried to interfere Baltic region by attacking local tribes and forcing to pay fees for them. But they were too weak to conquer the Baltic peoples. When German Crusaders took Baltic lands by force, Russians were unable to do anything about it. Another weakening factor was Mongol invasion- in 13th century Mongolian Hordes destroyed Russian cities and imposed so-called Mongol-Tatar yoke.  Kiev fell in direct Mongolian rule, while Novgorod was more independent but still fed up with Mongols.  The Mongols created a country called the Golden Horde with Sarai as capital. Mongols controlled Russian Duchies with use of fees and taxes and tried not to make them too strong. However because of inner conflicts within the Horde the yoke got weaker. In 1380 the forces of Moscow defeated the Mongol army at the Battle of Kulikovo. This great battle however was more a result of an inner Mongol power struggle than effort of Russian liberation. Mongol power stayed and in 1382 the Mongols revenged by burning Moscow. But Mongols were crushed by Mongolian ruler Timur (Tamerlan) from Samarkand who destroyed Sarai but spared Moscow. In 1480 Moscow destroyed Mongol army at the Battle at River Ugra and no longer saw them as their senior rulers. Mongol yoke ended and Moscow became a prime duchy in Russia. The Russians learned many things from Mongols, such as brutal ways of ruling and the lack of justice.  Grand Duke of Ivan III captured Novgorod and Pskov. When 1455 Constantinople the center of the Orthodox Church was taken by the Ottomans, Ivan III declared that Moscow has become a Third Rome- the center of Eastern Christianity and heir of Roman Empire. That was beginning of the Russian imperialism.

Czar of All Russia Ivan IV the Terrible

Heir of Ivan III was Vasily III. In 1530 Ivan his son was born. In 1533 Vasily III was dead. Ivan IV was crowned as Czar of all Russia. Since he was child first years of his rule the power was managed by boyars. Ivan IV reached his prominence when he led the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.   Both cities were owned by the Mongols and that was the end of Mongol influence in Russia.

After the fall of Kazan Ivan IV took his eyes on Livonia. Ivan IV wanted free port to the west and connect trade routes from the Baltic to Caspian Sea. Only Russian port on the Baltic Sea was Ivangorod right next to Narva, but it was too small and shallow. Russia required Livonia to pay taxes for Dorpat (Tartu) to keep peace. But in 1557 Livonians could not pay money to Ivan IV triggering his anger. Russia at first could not invade Livonia because relations with Poland-Lithuania were not secured. But in 1557 Kazan was captured and Russian army got large reinforcements from local Tatar tribes. Livonia still was not paying the money. Before that Russians managed to defeat Han of Crimea and stop Sweden. Grip on Livonia was getting stronger and Livonian cities asked for Polish help. In 1557 Livonia signed anti-Russian alliance with Poland-Lithuania and Order was under Polish protection. Russia saw this as a threat to its security and in 1558 declared war on Livonia.

Livonia was invaded by Russian forces and large groups of Tatar Hordes. Narva surrendered to Russia first, next was Dorpat. Sweden, Poland-Lithuania tried to force Russians leave Livonia, but without any luck. Russians pillaged Livonia killed civilians and in 1559 the Livonian Order gave up their independence to Poland-Lithuania. Order became part of the Polish army and their lands were given to them. Ivan IV tried to persuade Poland-Lithuania to join war against Muslim rulers of Crimea, but Lithuania disproved such proposal and helped the Han of Crimea. In 1560  August 2 Russians completely destroyed the Livonian army at the Battle of Ergeme. In same time Ivan IV started repressions against its aides.  On August 7 Ivan IV lost his beloved wife Anastasia. It was a great tragedy for Ivan and probably caused mental breakdown. Some say that Ivan IV turned evil after this and deserved his nickname ‘Terrible’. Ivan married again many times and most of his future wife’s were killed by his orders.

Atrocities of Russian army in Livonia

During the next years’ wars with brief cease-fire continued. Russia confronted Poland and Sweden and was unable to win. In Moscow Ivan IV continued bloody repressions accompanied by orgies and heavy drinking. In 1563 Russians captured Lithuanian controlled Polotsk.

The war started to shift against Russia when Crimean Tatars won many victories in 1579. They even devastated Moscow. Meanwhile after death of Polish king Sigismund Augustus throne was taken by energetic Stepfan Batory who started many successful attacks against Russia. He recaptured Polotsk and head deep into the Russian land almost threatening Ivan’s IV safety.   Sweden chased away Russians from Estonian part of Livonia. In 1581 Swedish mercenary forces captured Narva making heavy blow to Ivan IV. In November 1581 Ivan did heavy blow for himself by killing his son Ivan in spike of anger. Ivan IV now lost his heir. His remaining son Feodor was sick with Down syndrome and unable to rule. This was end of Rurikovich dynasty. Next year Russia made peace deal with Poland-Lithuania and Sweden.

Livonian Confederation ceased to exist. Northern Livonia with Reval (Tallin) and Narve was given to Sweden. Rest of Livonia was given to Poland-Lithuania. The New Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was established, its Duke was the last Master of the Livonian Order Gotthard Kettler. It was an autonomous nation with Jelgava as a capitol. Rest of Latvia was under direct jurisdiction of Poland. Riga tried to resist and was independent for many years but was captured by the Poles.

Russia lost in her first attempt to get way to the west. After Ivan IV death Russia felled in civil war together with Polish invasion.  Peace in the Baltic was kept until 1600 when Sweden and Poland-Lithuania started wars for Latvian territory.  It was Czar Peter I who again tried to “carve a window to Europe” and succeed in 1721 realizing an Ivan’s dream.

Livonia after Livonian war

Selected Sources

Madariaga, Isabel de. (2005) Ivan the Terrible: First Tsar of Russia. New York. Yale University Press.

Klišāns, Valdis. (1992) Livonija 13.-16. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte



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Wolter von Plettenberg

Wolter von Plettenberg bust at his grave site at Cesis

At 16th century the era of knights and crusader orders had come to an end. In most parts of Europe new age reforms were taken putting an end to importance of chivalry. England and France became centralized states and Teutonic Order became a secular Prussian state. The Grand Duchy of Moscow was heading to become a unified Russian state. At this time Livonia was still decentralized confederation ruled by Order and church, unable to unify. Unable to make reforms Livonian Confederation was prone to be conquered by the superior neighbor state.

At this time Livonia required a strong leader to save it from its own fate. This could be Wolter von Plettenberg the last powerful Master of Livonian Order. He had power in his hands to make changes, but in the end he only made life of Livonia only a little longer.

We don’t know the exact birth year of Plettenberg, but he was born in Westphalia Germany near the town of Plettenberg. His parents were local landlords. Because some of his relatives were already in Livonian order like landmarchall Gedert Plettenberg, Wolter joined the ranks of order in 1460′s in youth times.

In the first years of his career he was at the castle of Narve, Estonia, Aizkraukle and Aluksne. At 1481 he was finance and production administrator at the Castle of Riga. At 1482-1488 he was fogt of Rezekne and resided in Rezekne castle.

In 1489 he was elected landmarchal – the commander of armed forces and Masters adviser. His first military victory was against revolting Riga in 1491. Riga again tried to break free from Orders influence and broke the treaty of Salaspils signed in 1452 which made Riga under jurisdiction of the Order and Archbishop. He defeated the Riga’s armed forces at the battle of Bukulti and restored the power of Order. This made him very powerful among the ranks of Order and 1494 without a doubt he was elected as the Master of Order.

His main field of foreign affairs was Russia. Grand Duke of Moscow Ivan III annexed Novgorod, the strategic partner of the western world. He closed all trade offices in Novgorod and held captive western traders. This was a clear danger for Livonia as Ivan III made no secret that he wants to be ruler of whole Russia. He who was first called himself Czar- Emperor. Plettenberg sent 7 diplomatic delegations to Moscow and at the end 45 of 49 western officials were returned home. But the war was still imminent.

Knowing this Plettenberg tried to acquire allies against Moscow. He tried German Kaiser, Denmark but made an alliance with Lithuania. In 1501 he crossed the Livonian border for a preventive strike since Russians dissembled their forces near Pskov. Lithuanians did not send any help and Plettenberg acted on his own. He defeated the Russians and left the Russian border.  Russians strike back and entered Livonia and head to Cesis meeting no resistance. They pillaged Vidzeme and left. Plettenberg prepared to attack Russia next year.

In 1502 Plettenberg attacked Pskov. He pillaged its outskirts and siege the main town. He asked the defenders to surrender, but they waited for reinforcements and declined the surrender. When they came both sides met at the Battle of Smolin.

The order had cavalry commanded by Archbishop and landmarchal Micheal Hildebrand along with Latvian and Estonian foot soldiers.  About 5000 men.  Russians had forces from Pskov, Novgord, Moscow and Tatar allied forces. Order won the battle and left 2500 men dead. The Chronicle of Baltasar Rusov tells that Plettenberg lost only 400 men. After Lithuanian army again did not come, Plettenberg left Russia.

The battle was an important victory for the Order since Russians now hesitated to attack Livonia again until 1558. Numerous extensions of peace period showed that Russians respected the Order. However Russian historians try wash away the grunge of Smolin defeat (Russians never admit their defeat) by making it look like a victory since Plettenberg retreated after battle.

After setting things with Russia, Plettenberg was hit by a wave of the Reformation. He did not attempt to stop the spread of Lutheranism. But he kept his Catholic faith and when his Senior ruler the Teutonic Order became a secular state he rejected the possibility to do the same with his order. That may be his biggest mistake since he could make Livonia a centralized kingdom and start serious reforms. He was better off commanding army than being the real king of Livonia. So because of his hesitation Livonia never became a centralized   state.   He died in old age in 1535.  He saved Livonia from early collapse but did not do enough to make it last for steady future. His reigns did nothing significant either and so at 1558 the Livonian Confederation met serious nemesis- Czar Ivan IV the Terrible. But that is another story.

Selected Sources

Angerman, Norbert and Misāns, Ilgvars. (2001) Wolter von Plettenberg und das mittelalterliche Livland. Lüneburg : Verl. Nordostdeutsches Kulturwerk

Militzer, Klaus. (2005) Die Geschichte Des Deutschen Ordens. Stuttgart. Kohlhammer.

Klišāns, Valdis. (1992) Livonija 13.-16. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte

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