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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