The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

After the breakdown of Livonia and Livonian Order its member knights did not bother leaving Livonia. Instead they found new ways to keep their property by becoming landlords and collaborating with new Polish rulers. Polish administration decided to make a Duchy of Courland and Semigallia who would be ruled by an old knight elite. The Duchy consisted of whole Courland, Semigallia and Selonia. First Duke of Duchy was the last Master of Order the Gotthard Kettler. He took office in 1562.

The rulers of Courland were nominal vassals of Poland, however throughout the years, Duchy became more or less sovereign from Poland. It’s because Polish government had other important things to do like fighting Sweden, Russia and Ottomans. Duchy became well-governed and economically stable part of Poland. Main political forces in Duchy were 121 strong German aristocrat families.

First Duke Gotthard Kettler was devoted Lutheran so he established Lutheranism as Duchies main confession.  The duchy was free from Polish contra reformation policies, so Courland and Semigallia remain a strong Lutheran territory until this day. There is however the small district of Alsunga in Southern Courland who was owned by Catholic landlords who remains as a Catholic island in mostly Lutheran Courland.

Kettler did much to reconstruct damage made by Livonian war; however he made a mistake to give his two sons equal rights of ruling the Duchy. Oldest son Friedrich would take charge of the economy of Semigallia and youngest son Wilhelm would take care of Courland. This dual rule did not last long as in 1596 the Duchy was divided into two ducal courts and governments. This situation was advantageous for landlord nobility who could promote their interest in both ducal houses. Friedrich was official Duke from 1587 to 1641 but Wilhelm took an important role in states economical matters. In 1617 with the help of Polish mediators the dispute was settled and a new constitution was arranged.

In the time of war between Poland and Sweden both brothers struggled to keep Duchy out of war. Wilhelm however tried to get support from Sweden for his claim on ducal office. But he was defeated and forced to go to exile to Pomerania.

Duke Jacob and his fleet

After Fredrick’s death the heir to the office was Wilhelm’s son Jacob. Jacob is known as most successful ruler of the Duchy. He ruled fourthly years until 1682. He was enlightened mercantile ruler. He made vast improvements to the Courland trade fleet. The Couronian ships were of good quality and could cross oceans. Duchy had trade contacts with France, Netherlands, England and Portugal. He also attempted to involve Duchy in colonial politics. From 1659 to 1661 Duchy owned island fort in Gambia river in Africa. A fort was named by Jacobs’s name. It was later taken by England and renamed as James fort. Another short-lived colony was located in the Caribbean Sea on the island of Tobago. In 1654 Duke sent ship named Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland and established a colony there. It was taken later by other colonial powers. Both colonies were short-lived and with little use, but the fact that Courland actually had colonies goes deeply into Latvian historical memory. There was even a theatrical play made about the colonization of Tobago. Duke also maintained Courland itself by building manufactures.

Curonian colony in  Gambia, Afrika

The happy days of Duchy went into the end when the Swedish army invaded Courland and took Jacob prisoner. He was under Swedish imprisonment from 1658 to 1660. After he returned many achievements had been lost and Duchy went into decay.

Jacobs’s son Friedrich Casimir was a failure. He was more interested in life of glamour than in state matters. Production went down and Tobago was sold to England. During his reign Duchy was under high influence from Poland and Russia.

In 1698 at the age of six Friedrich Wilhelm became new Duke. The duchy was defacto ruled by General Ferdinand. After the end of the Great Northern war Duchy now had a border with the Russian Empire. Russian ambassador Peter Bestuzhev became most important man in the Duchy. In 1710 Russian Czar Peter The Great  arranged Fredrick’s marriage with Anna Ivanovna (the future Empress of Russia).  The wedding party in Petersburg was too intense for young Friedrich. Heavy Russian style drinking made Duke ill on his way home and he died in a carriage.

The next heir to the throne was Ferdinand. But he resided in Danzig. The constitution demanded the Duke to live in Duchy so he was not recognized by Duchy Diet. In 1726 Maurice De Saxe the son of Polish king Frederic Augustus the Strong was elected as the Duke. Russia disliked him and sent forces to expel him from the Duchy. In 1737 last titular Duke of Kettler family the Ferdinand died. Anna Ivanovna now Empress of Russia elected Ernest Johan von Biron as the Duke.

Biron was the strongest player in Russian Court. He had a high influence on Anna Ivanovna as one of her favorites. Biron was a rich man so he ordered to build a summer residence in Rundale. The castle was projected by the famous architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. Biron enjoyed himself much in the reign of Anna but when she died in 1740 good times ended. First Anna before his death appointed him as regent of the Russian Empire. His regency lasted three weeks when he was overthrown by his enemies and sent to Siberia.

Birons castle at Rundale

In 1741 Ludwig Ernst van Brunswick-Lüneburg-Bevern was appointed as the Duke. However he lost the title when the Elisabeth of Russia carried a coup and the title was lost.  In the last years of Duchy it was ruled by the Duchy Council (1741-1758) Carl of Saxony (1758-1763) then again Ernst Johan von Biron (1763.-1769) and Peter von Biron (1769-1795). In 1795 in the result of the Third Partition of Poland Duchy was annexed by Russia. This was the  end of an era of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.

The Duchy gave many goods to Latvia lands. Cities and countryside were maintained and enriched. The ports of Liepaja and Ventspils became rich trade points. Jelgava (Mittau) the Capital of Duchy got a marvelous baroque palace. Dukes established new cities like Jekabpils (Jacobstadt) and Jaunjelgava (Friedrichstadt). Otherwise for peasants it was hard times with German landlords who ruled all countryside and owned all peasants. However the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia is one of the landmarks of the Latvian history.

Selectecd Sources

Strods, Heinrihs. (1993) Kurzemes lauksaimniecība 17. gs. beigās un 18. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte.

Andersons Edgars. (1970) Senie kurzemnieki Amerikā un Tobago kolonizācija. Stockholm. Daugava.

 

Zalsters Arturs, Eižens (2002) Hercoga Jēkaba burinieki. Jumava: Ventspils: Jumava 2002.

Lancmanis, Imants. (1992) Ernsts Johans Bīrons, 1690-1990 : izstāde Rundāles pilī : katalogs. Latvia. : Rundāles pils muzejs.

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