Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Baltic Germans

The Jaunpils  Castle

Typical Baltic German Castle at Jaunpils

In late Medieval ages Holy German Empire became overpopulated. People had trouble finding land and jobs in the cities. In families with more than two children the third son was unable to inherit land from his family. So many Germans had to find a new place to live. The Germans looked to the east. Eastern Europe offered free lands to maintain and local people were poor and in much lower numbers. Also the Eastern European kings needed immigrants from the west to protect their lands from Mongolian invasions. This allowed the Germans to migrate to such places as Transylvania (in present day Romania), Bohemia (Sudetenland, Czech Republic) and other eastern parts. Later on the behalf of empress Katrina II Germans entered Russian lands.

But nobody invited Germans to Baltic lands. In 12-13 century Germans started a military expansion to the east under Crusader banner. Crusades in Latvia have been discussed in many posts before in this blog. Find them using tags or search.

First Germans in Latvia were Crusaders and Church missionaries.  Along with them came German merchants that settled in Riga. When all Latvian land became part of Livonia, more Germans came here. Crusaders became nobles and established castles around Latvia. Others mainly merchants lived in larger cities. In the 13th century there were 15 thousand Germans opposite to 160 thousand ancient Latvians. Also 20 thousand Livonians lived in Latvia. Despite the low numbers Germans were political majority. They held all political rights and titles; they got rights to land and ownership of local peasants. Ancient Latvians were mostly peasants that worked for German landlords for all their life with no rights for their own land. Latvians got little chance for education that would raise their social status. In cities Latvians could only have low rank jobs that were called “shameful jobs”. But Latvia escaped high scale colonization of German peasants. Livonia was hard to reach from Germany because of independent Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. If the Germans would enter Latvia in larger masses than Latvians would put at high risk of assimilation. There are however records of Latvian and Livonian entry into German noble families. One of the most famous Baltic German noble family Fon Lieven is said to originate from Livonians.

During the time of Reformation most Germans supported Martin Luther reforms and became Lutherans. Lutheranism and other protestant movements were highly common among German immigrants in Eastern Europe. Swift to Lutheranism also helped Latvians for the first religious texts were translated into Latvian.

The crush to German nobility was Livonian war that started in 1558. Livonia was at risk of being conquered by Russia. That did not happen thanks to Poland-Lithuania and Sweden, but the Germans had to give up their Crusader order. In 1561 the Livonia order ceased to exist. However Germans managed to keep all their rights because of the favor by Polish king Sigismund Augustus. A document containing promised privileges by Polish king gave wide rights to Germans in Latvia. But this document has not preserved until this day and nobody hasn’t seen it for a long time. Because of this historians speculate that document is falsification. Despite that Germans used this phantom document to protect their rights for many years.

However Poles did not keep all promises. Riga faced trade controls from Polish administration. Poles tried to restore Catholicism by removing few churches and imposing new calendar. This caused Calendar revolt in Riga that lasted from 1584 to 1589 and was defeated with the help of traitors within Germans. But in Duchy of Courland and Semigallia that was autonomous from Poland Germans had time of their lives. Germans ruled the Duchy and had a free hand in politics and religious matters. Their best days ended in 1795 when Duchy was added to Russia.

Germans in Swedish Vidzeme faced hard times when the Swedish administration decided to revise German ownerships and give large portions of land to Swedes. But in Riga Germans were supported because Sweden needed to keep the favor of Riga that got larger population than Stockholm. The Germans build many beautiful trade residences in Latvia like Reitern house and House of Danenstern in Martalu Street.

After Vidzeme capitulated to Russia things changed. One side of Germans led by count Johann Patkul conspired against Sweden to support Russia. However many German nobles were part of Swedish army and captured Patkul and sentenced him to death. But Russia at first did not want to conflict with the Germans. General Sheremtjev signed deal with Germans to allow them autonomy and official use of the German language. Latvians were completely subjected to Germans. Taxes and corve’s were increased. This was the highest point of Latvian enslavement that continued many decades until serfdom was abolished.

Russian emperor Peter I favored German aristocrats. He invited them to his court at Petersburg. The new city itself was built with the help of German engineers. Peter I needed well-educated Germans modernize his new empire.

In the 18th century there were 40 thousand Germans in Latvia. Because of Enlightenment in Western Europe many intellectuals entered Latvia most notably Johan Herder who worked in the Riga Dome School. German scholars started to show interest for Latvian folklore and language. Ernest Glik did tremendous work of translating the Bible in Latvian. Pastor Gothart Stender wrote many educational books in Latvian promoting Latvian education. Favored among Latvian are German scholar Garibl Merkel and his work “Latvians”. In this book he criticizes the Latvian enslavement and praises Latvian culture. This was one of the first times when information about Latvians was shown to the outside world. The work of German educators helped Latvians to get a national identity in future.

In 1766 first and last attempt of German colonization happened in Latvia. By the favour of empress Katrina II 85 Germans from Pfalz settled in Hirchen (Irši) parish near Aizkraukle. All of them were peasants who lived closely in Hirchen village. In 1914 there were a 8000 people who were born in Hirchen.  However only 1570 lived there because others left home to find luck in Riga, Russia or in Western Europe.

Germans living in Latvia often did not call themselves Germans. They identified themselves as Baltic Germans (deutchbalten). In 1817 and 1819 serfdom was abolished in Courland and Vidzeme (but still in Latgalia). German educators put even higher pressure to educate Latvians. They however wanted only elementary education for them. Latvians peasants still were objected to German landlords despite the abolishment of serfdom. That caused rapid Latvian conversion to the Orthodox Church to move away from the Germans. About 40397 Latvians became Orthodox Christians. To stop this leader of liberal German reformists Hamilkar von Felkerzam managed to allow Latvians rent land from the Germans and re-buy it in longer time. This finally allowed Latvians to become farmers.

The Germans got high influence in Russian politics. The Russian army was filled by German high rank officers. The Germans took posts in the Russian government. German academics and scientists pushed Russian progress. Only Noble prize winner from Latvia is German chemist Wilhelm Ostvald. In middle of 19 century 140 thousand Germans lived in Latvia.  They took part in the industrialization and controlled all industrial sectors in Latvia. They were wealthiest social group. But the growing sentiment of Russian nationalism or Slavophilism started to push pressure on the Germans. Russian Czar Alexander II started the process of Russifaction  and Unifaction of Russian Empire. In 1885 Nikolay Manasein revision cancelled the Baltic German autonomy, abolished German courts and made Russian language the official language in state matters. Baltic Germans did not receive any support from German Empire that wanted to keep good relations with Russia. 2000 Baltic Germans emigrated to Germany because of anti-German reforms. However Germans kept their status in industrial and commercial sector. They still worked in state offices because Russians were not eager to work in the Baltic provinces. All Majors of Riga were Germans (except Englishman John Armisted) no Russian ever wanted to lead Riga.

The Germans felt remorse to Latvians who gained more freedom because of Russian reforms. However the wave of Russifaction hit Latvians by prohibiting the Latvian language in schools and public places.  But Latvians were free to form their organizations and speak privately in Latvian. When a wave of revolution hits Latvia in 1905 the Latvian-German conflict sparkled in blood and fire. For the few months Russian administration lost control over Latvian rural areas that were taken by revolutionary committees. Revolutionaries burned 200 German mansions in all Latvia. The Germans formed self defense squads to fight armed social democrats and peasants. When things begun to heat up; Germans asked for Russian help. General Aleksey Orlov led “punishment expeditions” to stop revolution. Punishment battalions killed 1615 revolutionaries.

A new hit for Germans were the start of First World War. The Germans suddenly become haunted minority blamed for all calamities of the war. Russian administration destroyed the prosperous German controlled industry by evacuating all factory equipment to inner Russia. Even tram lines were taken to Russia. Despite this a large part of Germans fought with the Russian army against their brothers in Baltic front.

A new hope for the Germans was Brestlitovsk peace agreement that gave all Baltic lands to Germany. On November 8 1918 Baltic Germans gathered in Riga to proclaim the “Baltic State”. This state should compromise Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and restore all rights for Germans. However in November 11 Germany signed capitulation act and in November  18 Latvia proclaimed its independence. The idea of Baltic State now was obsolete. Germans however did not lose hope for it until 1920. In 1918 Germans supported Latvian government because of growing danger from Soviet Russia. Germans made Landesver an army from Baltic Germans and ex members of the German army to help the Latvian army. With their help the Bolsheviks were pushed away from Riga however Germans quickly turned against Latvians by organizing coup 1919  April 16 in Liepaja. A plan to capture Karlis Ulmanis government failed and Germans formed a puppet government lead by Kārlis Niedra a pro-German pastor. Their plans failed completely when their armed forces were defeated by joint Latvian and Estonian forces near Cesis on June 22. By pressure of the US, England and France a ceasefire was signed and the Germans were forced to recognize the Latvian government. Germans Edvin Magnuss become minister of justice and Robert Erhard became minister of finance. Landesver was taken under Latvian control.

However radical German forces lead by General Ridiger von der Goltz and Russian whiteguard Pavel Bermont- Avalov attacked Riga in November of 1919 but failed once again. By this time more Germans supported Latvia. Paul Schiemann new German leader officially supported Latvian independence. Landesver forces took part in the liberation of Latgalia in 1920 from the Soviets. 54 German soldiers were awarded with the highest Latvian military award the Order of Lachpesis (Bear Slayer).

After the war Germans came to conclusion that they need to integrate in the Latvian politics.  A new party called “Baltic German democratic party” was formed. It was the most successful minority party in Latvia that won 6 seats in every election. Jewish and Russian parties had far lesser results because of their political divisions. A massive blow for German landlords was the Agricultural reform. Latvian government wanted to get rid of German landlords once and for all. 1300 properties of German mansions were confiscated. Noble families lost their mansions and palaces. Another boiling point was a German commemoration of Landesver. In 1929 a Landesver soldiers’ cemetery was established in Riga. A large monument was built. After few weeks monument was destroyed with explosives by unknown people. Resented Germans took all pieces of destroyed monument and connected to one piece.

Despite of deep divide Germans kept the status in industry and commerce. An autonomy in education was kept, a German self funded schools worked in all Latvia. Even the national reforms of Karlis Ulmanis regime could not hinder German place in Latvian economy.

But nothing was so crucial to Germans as the rise of National Socialism. Nazi Germany exported Nazi ideology to Baltic Germans. In 1933 a Nazi organization “Bewegung” (Movement) was established in Riga. Nazi supporters gained success by removing democrat Paul Schiemann from the leadership and excluding other democrats. Nazi leader Erich Krueger had ties with German SS and SD. The Nazi government wanted to make “fifth column” to fulfil their expansionist plans. Nazi movement made bitter danger for Latvia.

After signing non-aggression pact with Soviet Union it became clear to Hitler that once Latvia would be taken by the Soviets, the Baltic Germans will be oppressed by them. So he issued call to Baltic Germans to return to their ethnic homeland. Not all Germans in Latvia wanted to move. The majority however feared the coming Soviet occupation and used this chance to escape. In 1939.-1940 51 thousand Baltic Germans left Latvia. Only 11 thousand Germans stayed. After Soviet Occupation 10500 still remained. Those who moved to Germany however could not live in Germany itself but were moved to Nazi occupied Poland. There they met tragic fates in 1944-1945.

In 1989 by Soviet Census there were 3789 people calling them Germans. A large part of them came from mainland Russia. Only 944 were born in Latvia. 49% of Latvian Germans spoke only in Russian. After regaining of independence Germans organized new organizations, but there is a divide between German-speaking Germans and Russian speaking Germans. By the dates of 2007 there are 4226 Germans in Latvia. Some Germans from Germany move to Latvia to find jobs or move here because they married with Latvians. The last census in 2011 gathered 3042 Germans now living in Latvia.

German culture in Latvia has been destroyed by two-world wars. But the German presence can be seen in many places in Latvia. The buildings in Riga, mansions in rural areas. Latvian language and music have been influenced by the Germans. Latvians despite the conflicts own a lot of Germans and German factor will always have a place in Latvian history.

Selected Sources:

Krupņikovs, Pēteris. (1980). Melu un patiesības palete. Riga: Zvaigzne 1980.

Duhanovs, Maksims. (1986). Baltijas muižniecība laikmetu maiņā : Baltijas muižniecības politika 19.gs. 50.-70.gados un tās apoloģētiskās historiogrāfijas kritika. Riga: Zinātne.

Dribins, Leo, Spārītis Ojārs. (2000) Vācieši Latvijā. Riga: Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts. Etnisko pētījumu centrs.

Dribins, Leo (Ed.) (2007) Mazākumtautības Latvijā : vēsture un tagadne. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, 2007.

Pistohlkors, Gert, Von. (Ed.) Deutsche Geschichte im Osten Europas: Baltische Länder, Vol 4.Berlin: Seidler Verlag.

Cerūzis, Raimonds (2004). Vācu faktors Latvijā (1918-1939) : politiskie un starpnacionālie aspekti = German factor in Latvia (1918-1939) : political and inter-ethnic aspects. Rīga : LU Akadēmiskais apgāds.


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Latvia and the Hanseatic League

Map of Hanza member cities and trade routes

In Ancient times the main traders in Europe were Romans. They maintained a sharp system of trade routes across their empire. Rome was filled with goods from East and West. After the breakdown of Roman Empire during the so-called “Dark Ages” full-scale trading in Europe was halted. During this time the masters of trade were Byzantines, Arabs, Persians and Chinese.  However when European medieval states started to grow stronger, European traders again begun to compete with their eastern rivals.

Before exploring the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Europeans sailed three main seas- the North Sea, Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean sea. The Mediterranean Sea was an old trade route. In Ancient times it was the “Greek frog pond“, then it was fully owned by the Romans.  The heirs of Romans were Italian sailors, the Genoa and Venice were the main centers for trade. Constantinople was also important until it was taken by the Turks. North and Baltic seas were less known to Greeks and Romans, few of their sources describes them, there even was expeditions made by Greeks and Romans. But since the shores of these seas were inhabited by less-civilized peoples they did not find them so tempting. So it was the British, Scandinavians and Germans who will make those seas a proper trade route.

One of the first German ports was   Lübeck. It was founded by Duke Henry the Lion of Saxony. Based on good position the city in the 13th century became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia. The word Hansa came from intention to form special guilds to trade with other cities.   Lübeck was especially interested in Baltic region where resources such as timber, wax, amber, furs, etc. came from. Rye and wheat were also important. Also the trade ships were important for the Crusades because ships were used to transport troops to conflict ground.

The Holsten gate of Lubeck

Lübeck and Hamburg made alliance in 1241 marking the start of the Hanse. It was based on cooperation between the cities and guilds to ease up trading and gain profit. Hanse was joined by Cologne and London. The main center of the alliance was Lübeck, it was Imperial Free city which meant that it has vast possibilities than other German cities.  The administration was Hansa Diet founded the 1356.

Because Russia was the important trade source, Hansa moved to the east. Livonian cities, Riga, Venstpils, Cesis, Valmiera, Kuldiga, Limbaži and Straupe became the part of the Hansa.  Ventspils was important port in Courland; ships could sail across river Venta to Kuldiga. Ventspils never lost its port’s importance as now it’s a main rival to the port of Riga. Kuldiga in other hand is no more used for ships.

The port of Ventspils

Riga as the biggest city was center for stock of all trade sources. Many Guilds worked there and it was the main trade spot in Livonia only to be countered by Tallinn ( Reval). From Riga ships sailed to Koknese and from there the route ended in Smolensk, Vitebsk and Polotsk.

The port of Riga

The last trade route from Riga to Tallin (Reval) across the river Gauja was mostly on land and headed to Novgorod and Pskov. In Russian towns Hansa had kontors– trade offices.

The 14th century was “Golden age” for Hansa. It took the monopoly on trading in the Northern seas. Hansa was so powerful that it could even wage war on a sovereign country- Denmark.  Destroying their fleet and sacking their cities Hansa used force to get full control over Scandinavia. However at the end of the century Hansa lost the war to Dutch rival merchants and the Hansa monopoly was broken.

15th century is called the “Autumn of Medieval ages”. The economic crisis did not spare Hansa. As Crusader knight regimes was defeated and Novgorod was annexed by Russian Tzar Ivan III. The cities  begun to rival with each other. Danzig (Gdansk) started to gain much more from Poland and became much larger than Lübeck. The Polish government tried to take over Danzig, but were repulsed. But the Dutch sailors became even more dangerous for Hansa, as they aggressively competed with Hanse. They succeeded making Hansa more and more weaker.

In the 16th century Hansa was no longer a key player. Swedish Empire was more powerful. Russia was no longer in trade business and because of centralization the cities no longer were so independent. Hansa could not make trade route to newly explored New World. The last formal meeting between the cities were held in 1699. The cities of Livonia did not take any part in them long before.

However the power of Hansa has not faded from historical memory. The word Hansa is used in the names of ships, companies (Lufthansa), the Swedish bank Swedbank was called Hansabank in Latvia for many years. There is even a PC Game The Rise of Hansa where Riga is also included (however pretty badly as it is shown as Russian town wit Orthodox cathedrals). Hansa is the symbol for the most active member towns, such as Riga. Riga is proud to be a former member of the Hanseatic League.

The logo of Hansa bakery.

Selected Sources

Hammel-Kiesow, Rolf. (2000) Die Hanse. München: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung.

Hanno Brand (ed.) (2007) The German Hanse in past & present Europe : a medieval League as a model for modern interregional cooperation? Groningen : Hanse Passage/Castel International Publ.


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Medieval Money in Latvia

Field of science researching coins and banknotes is called Numismatics. Coins are a great source from you can research the financial and monetary system in the past. Coins are also good to explore the state symbols and personalities, for the coin often depicts state prominences and symbols.

Before the introduce of coin, prehistoric people  used barter to exchange various things. Barter was used in many prehistoric societies. When civilizations got more complicated they required a more stable way of exchange.  In Baltic lands, the most valuable piece of trade was amber. Amber is fossilized   tree resin. It originates from deep pre-human times and can only be found on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Most amber is found in Lithuania and Kaliningrad Oblast Russia and on the shores at Courland, Latvia. Ancient Greeks and Romans found amber very beautiful and useful for jewelry. Ancient Greek scientists found that amber can make electricity.  First signs of amber trade were found Middle Neolithic Stone Age. At the swamp village of Sārnate locals built amber manufacture. They exchanged amber for flint and shale work tools.


In Bronze Age early Latvians already maintained both stockraising and farming economy and craftsmanship. Now locals exchanged cattle, animal fur, amber to bronze casting and bronze tools. First deposits date from this time.

The first coins in Latvia come from Roman Empire. Roman historian Tacitus in his Germania, writes that local Baltic tribes Aesti (probably Balts) receives a money reward with wonder for their amber. It’s probably because local Balts did not know what to do with coin money; they viewed it as just as some pieces of metal. Despite that they kept and made deposits and took them in their graves, believing it could be valuable in the afterlife.  The main Roman value was Libra (pound). After the fall of the Roman Empire and the chaos in Europe Latvia did not receive any coins until 8th century. The main currency was silver which came from Russia and Scandinavia.

At the 9th century Latvia received a large amount of Arab Dirhams. Arabian Caliphate was the main power in that time and it traded with Kievan Russ and the Dirhams came to Latvia on their way to Scandinavia. The museums in Moscow, Stockholm and Tallinn holds much more Dirhams than Eastern European museums. On the island of Gotland 40 000 Dirhams has  been found. In Latvia there has been 2 343 Dirhams located. Only 24 exemplars of Byzantine Empire currency silver miliaries were found in Latvia.

In 10th century first Western European coins arrived on Latvian land. Silver Denars from Germany, Denmark, Moravia and Hungary. In Western Europe main silver mines were located in Germany and England.  There were many types of coins because the rights of coin forging were for not only Kaisers, but also for dukes, counts and bishops. At 11th century the monetary crisis again made “no coin” period in Latvia. The main currency was silver bars. At this time the most deposits were found.

At 13 century when the age of Crusades emerged the new power re-established coins in Latvia. The new Livonian Confederation issued a Gotlandic currency the Marc of Riga (marca Rigensis).  From the middle of the 13th century the main coins were one-sided Pheninngs. On coins were depicted the keys of Riga and crossed swords.

Because of the inner political crisis in 14 century the coin forging was temporally stopped.  When restarted the new currency was Lübeck Pfennigs. Lübeck was the center of the Hanseatic League, and Livonian cities were part of it. In 1422-1426 monetary reform came into effect and Livonian Monetary Union started its work.

Currencies in Livonia were many. 1 Marc was 4 Verdins or 36. Shillings. Sometimes in Livonia silver Dalders and golden Ducats.


Phening issued by Bishop Albert

The monetary freedom of Livonia were canceled after the fall of Livonian Confederation. New powers, Poles, Swedes and Russians issued new currencies. It will be discused in future.

Selected Sources

Ducmane, Kristīne. (2004). Nauda : enciklopēdija par savu un svešu naudu Latvijā no seniem laikiem līdz mūsdienām. Riga : Zvaigzne ABC.

Ducmane, Kristīne and Veciņš, Ēvalds.(1995) Nauda Latvijā. Riga. Latvijas Banka.

Paiders, Juris. (2002)  Arābu laiki Latvijā. Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

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Sacral Architecture of Medieval Riga

New Catholic Christian German government along with castles and fortifications built many churches to establish their power. Many them still remain in Riga and serves as the monuments of history. Some of the churches are important outside Europe for the church of Saint Peter was tallest tower in Europe for some time.

In old Medieval Riga which today is known as the Old Riga there were eight churches. First versions of these churches were built from wood so we don’t know how they looked like. All churches have many different building stages, so they don’t look monolith, for building time was long and plans changed many times.

First church of Riga was the Dome Cathedral. It was started in 1215. It was finished at 1300. in Romanesque style and Gothic style. Although it has no dome it was called Dome cathedral because Latvian and German name Doms meant cathedral.  Dome Cathedral was Catholic church until 16. century when in the event of Reformation it was given to Lutheran church. Cathedral interior got many Baroque and Classicism style upgrades during the years and today Cathedral is compilation of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Classicism.  In 20. century late thirties around the Cathedral government ordered to remove block of buildings to create new square. The square was called in honor of 1934. 15. May when Karlis Ulmanis came to power. In result the cathedral got its own square which its now called as the Dome square. Square is home to many festivities during the summer, it often serves as the place for political rallies. In summer its best place where to enjoy Latvian beer. One the notable cathedral landmarks are enormous pipe organs built in 1884. and were the largest pipe organs in the world at that time. Organs still works today. Cathedral is also used for academic concerts. During the 1991. January barricade movement cathedral was used as hospital.

Dome Catherdral from old postcard

The Large organs of Dome Cathedral

Near the Latvian Parliament there is church of Saint James. Church was first mentioned in 1225.  It was built in Gothic style. After the Reformation church became a Catholic Cathedral and the main center for Latvian Catholic church.

The tower of St. James church

St. Peters Church

St. Peters church was built as merchant church and first mentioned 1216. The church was built in large size and most largest component was its tower. But the tower was destroyed many times. In 1721. the tower was struck by lightning and caught fire. In rescue works Peter I The Great, Emperor of Russia  helped to extinguish burning tower. He was at Riga at the following moment.  In 1941. the tower was again bought down by German artillery shells. Tower was used as observing post for Soviets and was destroyed by Germans. But Germans themselves blamed Jews for the calamity and used this to justify the Holocaust. Church was in ruins for many years until in 1973. it was restored. In 2009. the Church Golden Rooster was bought down for repair works. It was done by skilled Alpinist’s.   Today tower is 123 meters high and is used as tourist attraction. From 70 meters tourists can view Riga from above.

The church of St. John is small beautiful with Gothic look and fine stained glass paintings.

The church St. John

In the Modern age near the old Medieval churches new ones were built. Church of Reformates  was built in 1732. Near the Dome Cathedral in 1785. the Church Our Lady of Suffering a fine Catholic church with magnificent interior. The most recent church is Anglican Church built in 1858. The Church has became notorious for fundamental Christians and homophobes, because the Church leaders openly supports same-sex marriages here.

The three tall towers of Riga Churches made essential Riga landmark. From opposite side of Daugava you can see these three churches as they dominate Riga skyline.

Modern era engraving showing all three Riga Church towers

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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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Medieval Castles in Latvia

During the rule of German knights more than hundred castles were built in present Latvian territory.  Castles were residences of vassals and bishops and were main centers around Livonia. Locations of castles became civil centers and now most of them are cities. Today most sites of castles either lies in ruins or show little trace of their presence. Only few Medieval castles like in Riga, Venstspils or Bauska have been conserved, some have been partly restored like Turaida. In this post we will take a look at some of the most famous castles around Latvia.

Castle of Aizkraukle (Acheraden)

Aizkraukle has already mentioned in previous posts as palace site for early Selonians and Latgalians and Livonians. It was sited on right side of river Daugava 82 km from Riga. First castle was built by natives but burned by Crusaders, then Crusaders build their own stone castle. It was functional until in 14. century new castle was built nearby and the old castle was abounded. New castle was build in 14. century. Castle was property of Livonian Order. Castle was stormed by Russian army in 1577. and in 1599. it was abounded. In 17. century due to the territorial division, the left bank of river Daugava was given to Duchy or Curland and Semigallia and right was given to Sweden. Therefore Aizkraukle lost its importance and the castle became fully lost. At left side new center Jaunjelgava (Fridrichstad) was established and at right Koknese (Kokunhusen) took importance. Small amount of Ruins still stand today and have not been conserved and are getting smaller.

The ruins of Aizkraukle castle

Castles of Aizpute (Hasenpoth)

Castle of Aizpute

Aizpute is small town near Liepaja in Lower Curland. It was home to two castles- Bishopric and Order. Bishopric castle was built in 13. century and was center of  Chapter of Priests of Bishopric of Curland. One of castles components was church which still stands today. Other parts of castles slowly perished because after breakdown of Livonia the main center was Order’s castle which was located at other side of river Tebra.  The Order’s castle was built at same time as the Bishopric. It served as military base long after Livonian war because it was restored by new owners. In 1659. it was attacked by army of Sweden and captured. It was restored again but in 18. century it lost its importance and palace owner build new mansion like castle and the old was used as living space for servants. In 1915.-1918. the German army established prisoner of war camp.  In prewar period it was used as asylum. After the Second world war it was not restored again it in seventies was abounded because it was too dangerous for its inhabitants. Locals tried to conserve the castle but lacked funds do it and today castle has no roof. Despite that its still are observable, but needs some serious work to let it last longer.

Castle of Alsunga (Alschwagen)

Located in Curland near Kuldiga. It belonged to the Order and was used as household  castle of Kuldiga. It was used to store crops and cattle. It was so important that in 16. century was upgraded to resist fire weapons. After the Livonian war it belonged to the adviser of Duke of Curland and Semigallia, but he sold it to noble man Jakob Shwerin. In 1659. it was besieged by Swedish troops and done large amount of damage to it. In 1783. Duke of Curland Johan Biron bought castle from Sherin family, after liquidation of Duchy it was given to crown of Russia, and was inhabited by tenants who could not restore the castle. After First  world war it was used as civic building. It shared the function of post office, dairy, peoples hall and elementary school. School was there until eighties when new school building was established and castle became fully abounded.  But new extensions of castle are still used.

Castle of Alsunga

Castle of Bauska (Bauske)

Located 15 km from Lithuanian border. Build in 15. century as Orders fogt castle. It was used as the border fortress to secure Livonian border from Lithuanian attacks. When it became as property of Duchy of Curland it was used as residence of Dukes and maintained for their use. 1625. castle was captured by Swedes but in 1628. recaptured by Poles.  Year after it again became property of Duke. Because of numerous attacks by Swedes it was badly damaged. In 1701. during the Great Northern War the king of Sweden Carl XII captured it and ordered to entrench it on his way to Poland. But in 1705. Russians captured castle but in 1706. because of change of tactical situation they detonated half of castle. It was not used ever since and became ruins. Castle was saved by famous fon Lieven family who bought the castle and started to conserve it and made it as a park. In Soviet Era attempts of further historic conservation was done. The reconstruction continues until this day and the Bauska history museum is established there.

Castle of Bauska at winter

Castle of Cesis (Wenden)

Cesis is located in middle of Vidzeme and 92 km Riga and 2 km from river Gauja. Castle of Cesis is one of the most famous castles in Latvia because it was main residence of the Order. Its foundation was started in 13. century. There the Master of Livonian Order lived along his most trusted brothers of Order. The city of Cesis became sprawling center with defense walls and was member of international Hanseatic league. In 1577. castle was attacked by Russians. Inhabitants of the castle was trapped with no chance of escape and they blow themselves up making collective suicide. It was used by later day rulers until destroyed again by Russians in 1703. After that the ruins were owned by noble landowner families. In 1974. the every-year archeological excavations took place, preserving the castle and making museum around it. Today the ruins of Castle of Cesis is one of the most interesting tourist sites outside Riga.

Ruins of Castle of Cesis

Castle of Ēdole (Edwahlen)

Located near Kuldīga and Piltene. It’s not clear when the castle was build, but moderate indications show that it was built in 14. century. It  became subject of landowning dispute between brother of Danish king and heir of Bishopric of Curland. At the end it came in heir’s hands making it property of Beer family. In 1905. castle was burned down by revolting peasants because of escalating 1905. Russian revolution. It was not fully restored until 1914. During the First World war when Curland was occupied by Germany the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II Crown-prince Joahim lived there. During the Soviet era it was used as house for disabled persons.  It was used for movie shooting many times, most famous was Latvian adaption of Astrid Lindgren’s Emil of Lönneberga. (Emīla nedarbi 1985). After the fall of Soviet Union its now used for many purposes, but now is a private tourist attraction.

Castle of Ēdole

Castle of Jaunpils (Neuenburg)

Castle is located near city of Tukums at the border of Curland and Semigallia. It was used as Orders household castle and regional center. It is considered built in 15. century. After the fall of Order it was bought by fon Rekke family. It was not damaged until in 1906. the revolutionary’s set it ablaze. Owners restored it but lost it after World war I. The local school was established there until 1940. During the World war II it was used as German war hospital. In Soviet Era it was used for agricultural purposes. Today the castle is tourist attraction.

The Jaunpils  Castle

The Jaunpils Castle

Castle of Koknese (Kokenhusen)

Koknese is located in right bank of Daugava near the Pļaviņu hydroelectric plant. It was battle site during Crusades. Crusaders build their own fortifications and Koknese was important military center for the Order. Around it the city of Koknese sprawled becoming important center. In 1577. Russians captured it, but was pushed away by Poles. Later it was besieged by Swedes. Sweden administration made Koknese as one of the administrative centers of Swedish Vidzeme. In 1656. Koknese was attacked by Russians and renamed as Dimitry, but Swedes took it back. But wars made Koknese to decay and city of nearby Jaunjelgava became more important.  In 1700. Koknese was attacked by Polish-Saxon army. After they lost battle of Spilve, they destroyed the castle. During the First world war Koknese was on the main front lines, but tick castle wall survived the artillery shots. In Prewar period castle was popular tourist attraction.  But in 1961. the new project of Pļaviņu hydroelectric power plant drastically changed the geography of Koknese. New power plant flooded lower parts of Koknese and made remaining parts of castle just near the river when it before was further away from the river. To save castle from falling into river the work of conservation was done.

Castle of Koknese before building of hydroelectric dam

Ruins of Koknsese Castle now

Castle of Krustpils (Kreutzburg)

Krustpils is located at right bank of river Daugava, between Pļaviņas and Daugavpils. Krustpils is part of city Jekabpils. First it was designed as castle of Archbishop of Riga, but taken by Order many times. After the Livonian war when it was damaged it was bought by Korf family, who rebuild the castle adding many new Baroque style additions.  After the First World war it was given to Latvian Army, where the Latgalian Artillery Division was located. Then it was taken by Germans who made castle as war hospital. Then Soviet Army took control of castle making it as a barracks for Soviet Air divisions. Soviets did not cared much for castles repairing and made it ill-stated when they left in 1991. Luckily castle was taken by Jekabpils history museum who did state of the art restorations and made castle into splendid museum.

The Castle of Krustpils

The Castle of Krustpils

Castle of Rauna (Ronneburg)

Rauna is located near Cesis. Rauna was the main residence of Archbishop of Riga, an important center in Medieval Livonia. Livonian war and later day wars destroyed the castle it was completely lost during the Swedish times. However some ruins still stand there today.

Castle of Rauna

Castles of Riga

Riga was site of many castles. First was residence of Bishop of Riga. Today only building visible today is church of  St. John. Another Bishops castle were built but it’s not visible today.

Church of St. John- all that remains of old Riga castle

First castle of Order was destroyed during Livonian civil war in 1297. What was left was Church of St. George which now serves as the museum of decorative arts and design.

Remaining part of destroyed castle

The last but not least was the second castle of Order. It was the second and third castle of the Order which now is an landmark of Riga. It was finished at 14. century  but in 15. century was again destroyed because of civil unrest between people of Riga and the Order. New castle was built at the same spot and was used as residence for Order. Last strongest leader of Order Walter fon Pletenberg took residence back to Cesis. In 1562. castle was site where the Livonian Order officially ceased to exist. New owners used castle as administration center. It was residence of Russian generalgowerner. When the new Republic of Latvia came into being, castle was chosen as Residence of President of Latvia. Jānis Čakste, Gustavs Zemgals, Alberts Kviesis and authoritarian dictator Kārlis Ulmanis ruled country from this palace. During the Soviet Era it was used as place for museums and Pioneers palace. In 1993. new president of Latvia Guntis Ulmanis came back to palace. Since then Vaira Vīķe Freiberga and Valdis Zatlers resides there. Castle needs serious repair works because many parts of castle is damaged by the hand of time. Castle also serves as place for Museum of Foreign Arts and Museum of National History of Latvia.

The Castle of Riga and Residence of President of Latvia

Castle decorated with flags during national festivities

Castle of Sigulda (Segenwold)

Sigulda is located at right side of River Gauja. Castle of Sigulda was palace of Order. It was destroyed in Livonian Order and has not been restored ever since. Ruins were conserved during Soviet Era.

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

The ruins of the Sigulda Castle

Castle of Šlokenbeka (Schlockenbeck)

Šlokenbeka is located near Tukums. Its the only fortified mansion in Latvia. It was mansion of vassal. It changed hands many times and were upgraded may times. It newer suffered war damage so it its one of the rarest fully conserved castle in Latvia. Even when Castle was used as war hospital for Germans in WWII and was near front line it was never hit by any shell. Today mansion belongs road works firm and they have turned mansion into guest house, medical service and road museum.

The Castle Schlockenbeck from birdwiew

Castle of Turaida (Treyden)

Turaida is near Sigulda at right bank of river Gauja. First it was used as residence of Bishop of Riga,later Archbishop. Before there was Castle of Kaupo which was attacked by Kaupo himself. At 15. century it was taken by Order. Later day rulers took castle with out destructive fight and it survived , only to be damaged by fire in 1776. In Soviet Era Castle was restored, but only partly because all castle-building periods were not known. Therefore it’s not complete not as Castle of Trakai in Lithuania. This is criticized by some who see this as ridiculous, but others view Castle of Trakai as Disneyland and praise the Castle of Turaida because it’s fully fictional and shows more real view. In 2006. Castle was endangered by landslide who threatened to destroy the castle, but emergency works prevented further landslides.

The Castle of Turaida

Castle of Ventspils (Windau)

Ventspils is at entry of River Venta in Curland. As important port it was used for Order, and the castle was intended to protect the port. A city grow nearby becoming main center of Upper Curland. At Polish times it was used as army garrison. When Swedes captured city they burned and damaged the palace. But it was restored, used as a church, Russian army garrison and prison.   Prison existed there until  of 20. century and used by Soviets. Soviets did much damage to Castle because they lack of understanding of historical values. After the regain of independence castle got a second life. A museum was established there, boosted by rich Town Council and Mayor Aivars Lembergs, museum became one of the most modern state of the art museums in whole Latvia.

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

The modern day Castle of Venstpils

Most of Livonian castles faced its doom in Livonian war when new weapons blasted the old walls into air. However some managed to survive, as listed here and serves as valuable source of Medieval history.

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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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