Calendar Revolt in Riga

During the Livonian War Riga was a tasty bit for nations that attempted to conquer Livonia. Russians and Poles needed the rich Riga port for their economic interests. However there was no attempt to capture Riga from all sides of the war. Russian army came close to Riga three times (1559, 1560,1577) but at most times they only pillaged the city outskirts.  Despite that Riga merchants suffered financial losses because other cities in Vidzeme were bitterly damaged. The war prevented trade ships to enter the port of Riga at full-scale. After the end of the war Poland started to pressure Riga to surrender to them.

On 1561 October Poles first demanded Riga to surrender but Riga declined the demand. Poles finally took Riga under control in 1582.  March 12 when Polish king Stephan Batory entered Riga. Riga kept their privileges and rights. When Poles entered they started to restore Catholic faith in the city. Before that much of the city converted to Protestant Lutheranism. Poles took the Church of St. James and admitted Jesuits to Riga. This sparked anger within the Riga Lutheran citizens.

Poles ruled Riga until 1621. It was a time of conflict between Polish king and City autonomy. Trade was weakened and city financial status became worse. Polish soldiers did damage to the city by pillaging the citizens and city property. Poles imposed heavy taxes on Riga worsening the financial situation.  This caused a rebellion against Polish rule which was triggered by international calendar reform.

Calendar reform started when church officials attempted to fix the bug in the Julius Caesar calendar which had 365 days six hours that did not match with real tropical year calendar with 365 days five hours and 48 seconds.   The error became more visible during the centuries and at 16 century 10 more days appeared on the calendar. Catholic Church was dissatisfied with this because the holy celebration days did not match with seasonal changes. Catholic Church finally attempted to fix it at 1582 with the reform of Pope Gregor XIII. But the reform was not welcomed by Protestants and Orthodox Church (Russia only abandoned the old calendar in 1917). Poland issued the new calendar and ordered it to be used in its Baltic provinces too.

The town council of Riga however decided not to announce the new calendar because of fear from protests against it.  Polish king was not satisfied with this and ordered to announce the calendar immediately or pay a penalty of 10 000 golden ducats. The town council was forced to agree and at 1584 new calendar was announced in Riga.

Town council tried to explain to the citizens that new calendar has nothing to do with religion. But Lutheran citizens saw reform as Catholic propaganda and sign of Riga government close collaboration with Poland.

Christmas was celebrated only by city officials and Catholics. Protestants continued to work.  Those who celebrated at St. James church was attacked by an angry mob. The church was demolished but town guard dispersed the crowd.  This started the calendar revolt. The revolt was active between 1584-1589.

The revolt was organized by the rector of the Riga Dome-school Heinrich Meller who opposed the Riga main priest Neiner. Meller organized many protests and celebrated the old New Year day. He was arrested and accused of insulting the royal majesty.

This only strengthened the protests and angry mob attacked the Town Council and freed Meller from his captivity. Main revolt force was low-income citizens who attacked homes of city authorities. The town Council lost its authority and city shifted to anarchy. This was used by powerful city guilds that organized opposition and elected Martin Gize as opposition leader. Gize shut all gates in Riga to prevent the Polish army from entering the city.

Finally at 1585 guilds forced the Town Council to admit its power. Guild secretariat became the main power in Riga. The new calendar was cancelled. Town Council member left Riga and complained to the Polish king. King started to order guild to cancel revolt. Martin Gize denounced all kings’ demands and executed two Town Council members. After this king declared Gize an outlaw. Guilds feared that king may order a military attack on Riga which could result extermination of all high-class citizens. Guild made a new deal with Town Council which took back its old rights but all rebels need to amnestied.

But king rejected the offer and demanded to punish rebels. Then Gize searched help abroad, he asked for Swedish king Juhan III help, but he did not give clear promises. Juhan’s son Sigismund was a candidate for the Polish throne so he had more serious things on his mind. Gize even asked for help from Russia.

1586 December 2 Stephan Batory died. This stated interregnum time in Poland when no serious action was done. Swedish Prince Sigismund and Austrian Duke Maximilian battled for the Polish throne.  Because of help from Polish oligarch Jan Zamoisky Sigismund won the throne in 1588.

Sigismund was fanatical Catholic. He supported the Town council. Gize took action by exiling all Jesuits from Riga and took St. James church back to Lutherans. He did everything to stop all means of resistance.

In 1588 Gize was elected as Grand member of Great Guild. But opposition against him became stronger because tradesman feared that king may close the Daugava trade route. This caused treason by Riga Representative David Hilhen who started secret talks with Jan Zamoisky. The Polish party started to gain strength and in 1589 traitors opened the city gates to the Polish troops.

This marked the end to the revolt. Polish representatives took over. Leaders were trialed and Martins Gize and his college  Hanss Brinken were sentenced to death. Town Council took back all rights and new calendar was issued again.

This was one of the longest revolts in Latvian history. Although low-income citizens mainly Latvians were actively part of the revolt this was mainly a struggle between middle class tradesman and high-class Town rulers.

Selected Biography

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

Dunsdorfs, Edgars. (1964) Latvijas vēsture, 1500-1600. Stokholm. Daugava.


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