Tag Archives: Feudalism

The Medieval Riga

Rigas zimog 1226

The Seal of Riga in 1226

Riga was founded in 1201 when Bishop Albert settled there. Before him there were native villages inhabited by Livonians and Latgallians. And there was a settlement of the German Merchants who chose this place as their trading base. Bishop Albert chose this site as the base of operations for his Crusader campaign. Riga had a crucial role in the Crusades. From Riga Crusader armies marched at all directions in Latvian lands, conquering Courland, Semigallia, Latgallia, Selonia and Vidzeme. Native armies tried to capture the strong-point, but all failed and Riga withstood as the main Crusader capitol. Since then Riga located at middle of Latvia has become as the main center of Latvia. It’s been called the “water-head”” of Latvia since Riga has all services for workers, and all national administration is located there. Other smaller towns except Daugavpils or Liepaja could not offer what Riga has, so in the past decades Riga has been inhabited in large masses by country people.

The beginnings of Riga where at the right side of the river Daugava, where distributary of Riga Speķupe (The Ham River), blocked at Kube hills took the circle to Daugava. This distributary was called Riga or Rīdziņa. Near the entry in river Daugava, river Riga made extension called the Lake of Riga. There was the first port of Riga. Another distributary of Daugava near Riga is Sarkandaugava (Red Daugava), or the Punishment Ditch.

Near Riga there are three big entries of rivers Daugava, Lielupe and Gauja. Near Riga there are some large lakes like lake of Babīte, lake Ķīšezers, lake of Jugla.

During the springtime floods Riga was endangered, because the entry of river Daugava was full of sand reefs and Riga was located at just 4 meters above the sea level.  Many disastrous floods had been recorded in 1363, 1562, 1578 and 1590. In 16 century river Daugava changed its entry in Vecāķi but then in 17th century it broke the dune walls and found the straightest way to sea. River Riga also had trouble; it slowly became contaminated by city garbage and the buildings of dams in order to prevent floods which closed the water flow from Speķupe to river Riga. Because of the wall building river Riga was completely closed from Speķupe and became as standing water reservoir.  Since it was polluted it was levelled in 18.-19 century and today where river Riga once flow there is streets and buildings.

Based on this all Riga had ideal position for trade, administration and it was the main key of the Baltic Region. It never lost its strategic importance at all times.

First years of Riga were turbulent for it was many times attacked by native forces. Most dangerous were attacked by Curonians from the sea in 1210.  But all attacks were repulsed and Riga was the main base of operations for the Crusaders. In 1221 Riga was almost taken by the Danes when Bishop Albert was forced to become vassal of Danish King Waldemar II. But that was met by heavy resistance from local citizens who did not allow Danish kings envoy Gotshalk to enter Riga. But in 1223 Waldemar II was held captive by vassal and Denmark lost its concessions in Baltic lands.

After that the main civil government of Riga became the Town Council or rāte. The town Council consisted of 12 consuls or Town Councilors, later the number added to the 20 Town Councilors. Town Council existed until 19 century eighties when it was reformed by the Russian Imperial Administration.   Town Council was elected by Town Assembly, but in 13 century the Town Council elected themselves and Town Assembly was used for decorative purposes.   The four main Town Councilors where Burgomasters one of them where Higher Burgomaster who run the Town Council. He was something like Major of Riga these days.

The town Council managed all aspects of Riga, the ruling, organizing, and justice as well as commanding of the armed forces. In 1226 Riga got first Coat of Arms. Walls, gates and two towers symbolized the stability of the city, but keys of St. Peter meant that the town is in the protection of Curry of Rome, and Cross in the middle showed that the town is under the Bishop’s official rule. Coat of Arms changed many times due to the changing powers that ruled the town.

Town Council had a constant struggle with two seniors the Bishop and the Order.  Bishop and Order were in struggle themselves too, the war between then affected Riga. In 1297 the constant tension evolved into full scale conflict- it started as a dispute over a bridge over Daugava, which were made to build dams. Order demolished the bridge to let some of their ships pass. This caused the conflict which made half of Riga burn to ashes and Order’s castle was captured by locals. The castle was destroyed, but the Order was far from giving up. Order prevented the counter coalition of Bishoprics of Riga, Dorpat and Ōsel-Weik capturing Archbishop of   Riga and started the blockade of Riga. Riga was forced to sign alliance with pagan Lithuania. First alliance was successful; the castle near Cesis the Windmill of Bethold was destroyed. But then near Bukulti Order received reinforcements from Prussia and crushed the Riga-Lithuanian army. At the end the Hanseatic League forced to sign a peace agreement. The consensus was acquired by the Archbishop of Lund on 1304 March 21. The order must have its lost possessions back, the wall must be built to separate Order’s castle and Riga, the Order could not make new fortifications, the town could build the bridge over river Riga, but cannot disrupt the Order’s sea vessel movement, and both sides must not disrupt each others trading. Order bought the Daugavgriva monastery and turned into a fortress. That was vital gain for the Order.

Order gained victory, but did bother to note peace terms. They confiscated Riga trade ships and attacked the traders. Riga tried to gain Lithuanian help, complained to Rome, but nothing worked. The war erupted again in 1316 and the fortress of Daugavgriva was under siege.   But Order outmatched again by paying large sums of money to the Pope and Daugavgriva was declared as “eternal possession of Order”. In 1328 war again gained its height as the Daugavgriva was attacked again.  Lithuania was asked for help and they came, but Order captured the four Archbishops castles in advance and gained support from Prussia. In 1329  the siege of Riga had begun. It lasted a half of the year. 1330 March 20 Riga was forced to surrender. To humiliate the defenders of Riga, they were ordered to cut a hole into the city wall so the knights of the Order can go through there besides the main gate. Now Order had gained full control of Riga and the city became the town of Order. The Coat of Arms changed adding Crusaders Cross and Lion into gate of Riga.


The Seal of Riga after victory of Livonian Order

Riga grew rapidly despite the wars. The stories of most significant Medieval foundations in Riga will follow in future posts.

Selected Sources

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

Šterns, Indriķis. (1997) Latvijas vēsture, 1290-1500. Riga: Daugava


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The Confederation of Livonia


After last native resistance was quelled the Crusades ended. Latvian land along with Estonia was divided between conquerors. The outcome of the Crusades was the Confederation of Livonia or the Land of Saint Mary (Terra Mariana) as it was officially called. It consisted of three episcopacy’s, one archbishopric, two Town council land territories (Riga and Reval) and State of Livonian order. The Confederation had no official capital, but had its own diet the Landtag (an early Medieval version of parliament) since 1419 located the in city of Valka. The territorial division was made by William from Modena in 1228 and following years.

The archbishopric of Riga was located in Vidzeme and some part of Latgalia. It was divided in two pieces since the waterway of river Gauja was owned by Livonian Order. The land located on the left side of Gauja was called “Livonian end“, the other larger side was called “Latvian end” the both names came because one side was inhabited by Livonians and other by Latgalian Latvians. The archbishop’s residence was in Riga, but Riga was not part of the Archbishopric. Another stronghold of the Archbishop was Castle of Treiden (Turaida) and Kokenhusen (Koknese). Local Latvians and Livonians were forced to make corvee for the land owner (corvee is an obligatory agricultural work for every peasant who lives on vassals land like harvesting).

Bishopric of Courland was split into three sides, the Upper Courland is known today as the Livonian Coast, small piece of Western Courland, and Lower Courland. The residence of Bishop of Courland was Piltene. Other centers were Ēdole, Embūte, and Aizpute. In Estonia there was the Bishopric of Dorpat (Tartu) and The Bishopric of Ösel-wiek which was located in Western Estonia and on islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (Ōsel and Wiek) The main centers there were mighty castles of Hapsal (Haapsalu) and Arensburg (Kuressare). Reval (Tallin) was the main center in Estonia as much as Riga and had its own territory.  The Northern Estonia was ruled by Danes in a small period of time as shown on map above, but later became part of the Livonian Order.

Livonian order ruled the largest pieces of Livonia.  It relayed its rule on building castles. The sites of the fortresses became cities. The main Castle was the Castle of Wenden (Cesis), others were Windau (Ventspils), Kreuzburg (Krustpils) and Dinaburg (Daugavpils). It also had castles in Riga. The first was destroyed during the Civil War between Riga and Order and second still stands today and serves as the official residence of the President of Latvia. The castles in Latvia will be disused more in future posts. Livonian Order was the main defense force of Livonia and key politic player.

The first diet the Landtag was called in 1419. It took place in Valka for it was crossing point between Latvian and Estonian lands (today Valka is divided between Latvia and Estonia). Landtag was an attempt to organize and centralize Livonia, but Livonia newer fully unified into one state. That was crucial when in 15-16 century the Livonian neighbors Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and more dangerously Russia became strong centralized countries marking an end to Livonian Confederation.

Selected sources

Šterns, Indriķis. (1997) Latvijas vēsture, 1290-1500. Riga: Daugava.

Spekke, Arnolds. (1995) Latvieši un Livonija 16. gs. Riga: Zinātne.

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

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The beginning of Feudal order in Latvia

Almost in all historical literature the civil order in Medieval Europe is called Feudalism. There were many ways to describe this concept. Marxist historians described Feudalism as social order which changed the order of slavedom common in Roman Empire and ultimately was changed by Capitalism. But we cannot put clear equality between the Middle Ages and Feudalism. The western liberal historians describe Feudalism as the practice of using the power and form of government which was based on juridical relations between seniors and vassals, making land feuds. In the feudal form of government there were three main social classes-the Clergyman, the Knights and the Peasants. On top of the pyramid was king. But the king was dependent on his vassals and the Church. The Senior was the prime land owner, he feud his land to vassal making him subject of senior. The vassal must help the senior in any circumstances or his land would be taken away. The vassal could feud his land to other vassal making complex land owning system. The vassals could only broke their vows to senior if he abuses the terms of the agreement. For instance- if the king abuses his powers his vassals can break their vows to him. Therefore king would be left without an army and risk losing his throne. Even worse was the situation if the king makes conflict with the Church. The Pope could exclude him from the Church making his vassals free from following the king’s orders. There was nothing worse to be excluded from the Church; it would mean complete rejection from society and possible death.

In one of the previous posts we examined the civil order in Latvia before the Crusades. Latvian land was considered in small confederation based on lands and fortress districts. It was the earliest form of rule, not yet ready to be called a Feudal type of governing. The form of rule was close to such tribes as the Celts in ancient France before coming of Caesar. Like Celts the early Latvians were not ready to meet the new form of rule bought by foreign invaders. The Crusaders were forced to make Feudal government in Latvian land from the scratch.

In year 1201 Bishop Alberts came to Latvia to begin his episcopacy. He needed vassal for his future commitments. The Chronicle of Henry states that in this year Bishop accepted two guests- Daniel noble man and Konrad from Meiendorp and feud two castles Lielvārde and Ikšķile to them. This is considered the first written source which states the first Feudal practice in Latvian land. No one officially gave the Bishop the right of feuding conquered Latvian lands. The Livonian rulers were not asking for Bishop’s help to secure their lands. It was only the right of the conqueror to feud his land to land to others and Bishop Albert’s was considered as the conqueror. In this case the Bishop Albert fully acknowledged himself as the secular ruler, it was only understandable in this situation when the Church was only intuition to lead a Crusade in Latvian land.  The Chronicler Henry called him princep (principem), meaning as the most prominent civilian. Princep was the official title of Roman Emperor. During his rule Bishop Albert did everything to prove that he suits this title by all means necessary.

Konrad only moved into his Ikšķile castle in the summer of the year 1206 when Crusaders fully assumed control of the palace.  Next year the Bishop Albert came to Germany to meet king Filip. He asked to feud the Livonian land to him. He was not so powerful to claim the conquered land of his own so he offered is at feud to most powerful ruler. Filip promised to send him a hundred marks per year, but never kept his promise. But this made Latvian land property of the Holy German Empire of Rome. When Filip died, Albert following the practice that right of feud must be asked to new heir of senior visited the king Henry the son of legendary Kaiser Fridrich II who lived in Sicily. He gave full rights to the Bishop.  Also the Church in 1219 in Pope Honorious III person officially acknowledged Bishop Albert as the Ruler of the newly conquered lands. At 13th century German Kaisers were caught up in the constant political struggle and could not fully influence the inner politics in Livonia, therefore the formal Livonian subjects never again restored feud rights with German Kaisers, or took part in the German Reichstag. Only the Crusader orders asked for feud rights.

The Crusader orders wanted their part of land too so Albert had to cope with their interests. In 1207 he was forced to feud the third part of the Livonian land to the Order of the Brothers of Sword. The Order wanted more than Bishop could offer and this marked the future land conflicts with the Church and the Order. But Albert had no choice- he needed the Crusaders for his wars and made the Order as the second ruler of the Latvian land. The Order was vassal of the Bishop but as it rose more powerful the Order took more lands from the Bishop. In the future the predecessor of the Order of the Brothers of Sword the Livonian Order acquired the most land in Livonian Confederation. The Bishop Albert was the last powerful Bishop in Latvian land, after his death the Crusader order took the prime control of Latvian lands. There was episcopacy’s but far too small to counter the order’s interests. In this case the one with most number soldiers and castles won.

Selected Sources:

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

Šnē, Andris. (2002) Sabiedrība un vara: sociālās attiecības Austrumlatvijā aizvēstures beigās. Riga. Intelekts.

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Early Latvian statehood and civil order before the Crusades

There were and there is right now a discussion about the question of early Latvian statehood’s. The nationalists insist that there were real Latvian kingdoms with kings and castles. The skeptics see this as much as fantasy and try to solve this question more on the middle ground, that there was an existing statehood’s but they cannot be compared to the kingdoms in Western Europe and neither in Eastern Europe. The early Latvians were on the first basic steps to form a feudal kingdom but the Crusader invasion halted this advance.

As we found out in previous posts the main centers of early Latvian people were wooden fortresses and towns around them. The all forms of ruling were concentrated in those fortresses. Fortresses had their own districts they are called pilsnovadi in Latvian. In most cases they were not large in size that’s why I call them micro-states. At the end of the 13 century a new administrative form appeared-  parishes (pagasti in Latvian). The name comes from Russia where the word  погостиь means the rights of rulers regale basically meaning fee paying to the ruler. From that the Russian word погост evolved as the territory for fee collecting. It was called mark in German. Parish consisted of many villages which were subjugated to fortress districts. There is 450 known castles and fortresses today. Manny fortress districts united in larger territorial unions called lands in German chronicles (terra, land). At Courland there were nine lands called Vanema, Bandava, Ventava, Piemare, Duvzare, Megava, Pilsāts, Ceklis and the Land between Skrunda and Semigallia. At Semigallia there were seven lands- Silene, Žagare, Dobene, Spārnene, Tērvete, Dobele and Upmale. Within Dobene and Spārnene there were smaller administrative units called provinces (in Dobene- 16, Spārnene- 19). There is no complete amount of Livonian and Latgalian lands known today we can guess that there were many. There was no unified state which would unite all tribes in Latvia.

Despite that there were small statehood’s or micro-states. In Western Courland the king (rex in the chronicle) Lamekin is said to be an king of Ventava. The chronicle of Rimbert calls Kursa as as the kingdom (regnum) with five civitats (civitās) the districts in it. In Latgalia there were rulers acknowledged as kings. The most largest state was the state of Jersika (regnum Gercike). Its ruler was Visvaldis (The ruler of all ) he also was the warlord or unified Jersikian- Lithuanian army. Visvaldis took rule of many territories which stretched from river Daugava to river Gauja. The state was consisted of many fortress districts so the state of Jersika can be called as a confederation. Some districts on the right bank of river Aivekste formed their union called Lettia. The neighbor of Jersika was the state of Koknese ruled by a king or Duke Vetseke. The Tālava was called in many sources differently from simply a province to land union. It was ruled by Tālibalds and his sons. Tālava consisted large territory at the Gauja river basin. There are no sources of Selonian kings and states there were four castles in Selonia. Chronicle of Henry of Livonia says that there were many Livonian kings and four Livonian lands. The land of Daugava, Turaida, Metsepole and Idumeja. Ako was recognised as the mightiest Livonian ruler and bitter fighter against Crusaders. The Kaupo recognised as the king on the other hand was very friendly to Crusaders and even took the legendary trip to Rome to meet the Pope himself.

There was an organized society in Latvia within the early type states. It was based on a confederation of lands and fortress districts. But there were no state organizations like in Lithuania which could unite all Latvian tribes. The Lithuanians managed to settle their differences and at the time of Crusader invasion was ready counter the Crusader threat.

Senlatvijas karte

The map showing early Latvian statehood’s

According to the archaeological findings and written sources the early Latvian society was socially divided. The Latvian Pagans occasionally placed the most worth belongings in the dead man’s grave. From that the archaeologists can tell the social status of the berried man. The graves with weapons and jewels were probably belonged to Noble’s. They could be the elders of the village or even districts. Other social class according to archaeologists was the members of warhoods who took a prominent position in the states military. Third class was the free peasants of the village who took part in wars, but was second handed in state politics, because all decisions were made by Noble’s. The Fourth Class with poor grave inventory was the prisoners of the war and other unfree peoples.

The leader of the early Latvian states was the rulers (valdnieks) or the kings (ķēniņš) as named in chronicles. The taxes were collected by special taxman’s. The amounts of taxes were measured in ploughs or horses.

There were also early forms of parliament. The ruler could not make military decisions without consulting the members of war-hood. The meetings of nobles decided the state’s internal and external questions. There were also records of meetings between the elders which could make the same decisions as the war nobles like signing a peace deal with the Crusaders.

The early Latvians were not an uncivilized barbarians, but were at much lower levels than the rest of Europe’s feudal nations.  That’s why early Latvians could not fight with German Crusaders equally.

Selected Sources

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

Apals, Jānis and others. (2011) Latvijas senākā vēsture : 9.g.t. pr.Kr. – 1200.g. Editor: Mugurēvičs Ēvalds. Riga : Latvijas vēstures institūta apgāds.

Šnē, Andris. (2002) Sabiedrība un vara: sociālās attiecības Austrumlatvijā aizvēstures beigās. Riga. Intelekts.

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