A Hansa Town between the Archbishop of Riga and the Teutonic Knights - The History of Mediaeval Riga
Archbishopric, seat of the Teutonic Knighs, and member of the Hanseatic League - Riga's Old Town has plenty of churches, a castle, and lanes and squares with pretty old houses. I spent a day there and managed to snatch a nice collection of photos to go with a post about Riga's Mediaeval history.
House of the Blackheads - one of Riga's iconic buildings
Settlement at a natural harbour 15 kilometres upriver from the mouth of the Daugava river (also known as Dvina; in Old Norse as Dúna ) dates back to the 2nd century AD. The settlers were Livs, a Finnic tribe, and the Baltic Curonians. Archaeological digs have shown traces of bone and amber craftsmanship, animal husbandry and fishing. The settlement likely was a minor trade centre at that time.
During the 5th and 6th centuries, the place, named Duna urbs in written sources, became part of the Viking trade route to Byzantium which followed the Daugava and Dnjepr river systems. Goods stored in the warehouses at the Daugava harbour were mostly corn, flax and hides. Amber and furs were traded as well, but not stored in larger quantities.
I already mentioned in the post about Tallinn that German interest in the Baltic increased in the 12th century. The first traders came to Livonia and the settlement at the Daugava via Visby, seat of the Gotland Corperation. They established a settlement of their own nearby, at the confluence of the Daugava with a minor river called Riga Brook, which would eventually lend his name to the town, in 1158.
Lane in the Old Town
The Curonians at the coast had developed a habit of piracy as side occupation; and a fat cog from Gotland or Lübeck made for a welcome booty. It was one of the reasons the Germans wanted to bring those people under Christian rule.
Some attempts at Christianising the Livs and Curonians had been made prior to the arrival of the Germans. Danish merchants had built a church in 1045, and Orthodox missionaries came in from Rutheinian Polotsk. A number of Livs and Curonians were baptised, but it was never a grand scale operation. That changed with the arrival of Meinhard of Segeberg, a German missionary from Gotland. Meinhard attempted to convince the Livonian tribes at the Daugava to convert - he taught them to build in stone in order to impress them, but it didn't really work.
Nevertheless, his superior, Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen - eager to expand the power of his diocese - consecrated Meinhard as bishop of Livonia with the see in Ikšķile (Üxküll in German - sorry, I didn't make that name up *grin*) at the Daugava, in 1186. But his attempts at converting the Livs and Couronians remained unsuccessful. Meinhard was a priest, not a warrior; moreover, the coastal tribes prevented him from getting reinforcements from Gotland. He died in 1196.
Mediaeval houses 'Three Brothers'
His successor, Berthold of Loccum (a monastery near Hannover), barely escaped death when the tribes didn't take well to his less gentle ways of conversion and he had to flee to Gotland. Berthold was more of a warrior than Meinhard and came back with a crusader army in 1198. But he managed to get himself killed in a battle the crusaders won - it is said that he rode ahead his army, was surrounded and hacked to pieces by the Livonians. Now the nothern crusades had their first martyr.
Berthold's successor Albert of Buxthoeven, a nephew of Archbishop Hartwig of Bremen, realised that it would need some sort of standing army to make the Livonians stay baptised, and created the Livonian Order of the Brothers of the Sword (for details see the post about Tallinn). According to official Church History of the time, the Livonians had been converted in 1206 after the battle of Turaida which was fought between the Sword Brothers and their allies (among them the Livonian prince Caupo who had been baptised already under Meinhard and even visted Rome) and the pagan tribes.
Town wall of Riga; remains
In 1201, Bishop Albert trasfered the espiscopal see from Ikšķile to Riga which was accessible by cogs. The date is considered the official foundation of the town. Albert introduced first the Visby, later the Hamburg law. His see was still under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Bremen, though.
Philipp of Swabia, king of Germany (though the position was contested by Otto of the Welfen family, the future emperor Otto IV) granted Bishop Albert Livonia with its capital Riga as fief and principality of the Holy Roman Empire. The land was divided between the Church and the Order of the Sword Brothers - they got a third of the land. That arrangement would lead to troubles in the future.
The Powder Tower from 1330 (originally called Sand Tower)
Albert also furthered the trade in Riga. He obtained papal bulls that obliged all German merchants to conduct their trade to the other Baltic and the Ruthenian towns, including Russian Novgorod , through Riga. He also managed to force the Prinicpality of Polotsk to grant German merchants free passage of the Daugava to reach the markets of Smolensk and Vitebsk as well as the overland route to Novgorod. This agreement also put an end to Livonian tribes - particularly the Latgalians living upriver - having to pay tribute to Polotsk.
Riga minted its own coin by that time. Due to the growing importance and wealth of the town, bishop Albert claimed independence from Bremen's jurisdiction; Livonia became an autonmous episcopal see in 1213.
The Swedish Gate, added 1698
But not everything went smoothly for Albert. Parts of the town were destroyed by a fire in 1215. Moreover, the citizens of Riga wanted greater autonomy from the bishop and ecclesiatic jurisdiction. They finally were granted exemption from paying taxes to the bishop, as well as the right to elect their own magistrates and adopt a city constitution in 1225. It seems that even the pope sided with the town against Albert.
Outside the town walls of Riga, troubles arose as well. The Livonian tribes were far from pacified; old inter-tribal feuds flared up, as did rebellions against the Christian occupants. Riga was protected by its walls, but all over the country, the Sword Brothers were kept quite busy.
In the end, bishop Albert was obliged to call King Valdemar of Denmark, who had shown an interest in the area, for help. Valdemar conquered the Estonian town Tallinn (Reval) at the battle of Lyndanisse in 1219, and the island of Saaremaa (Ösel) soon thereafter, but the Danes didn't want to work for others, so Albert had to acknowledge their rule of those lands.
It followed a time of rebellions and shifting alliances in Livonia and Estonia. King Valdemar was caught in between and unable to defend his conquests against the Sword Brothers. The reason those rebellions were not successful in the long run was the lack of centralised leadership of the Livonian tribes; they various people never united under one leader like the Lithuanians eventually would under their grand dukes (and they caused the Teutonic Knight a lot of trouble).
Bishops Albert reached an agreement in 1222 in which all Livonian lands were returned to his control (about the onging problems with the Sword Brothers who refused to return the lands enfeoffed to them see the post about Tallinn).
Riga Cathedral, the cloister (the cathedral itself was scaffolded in)
Bishop Albert fortified the town of Riga; some remains of the old town walls can still be seen. He laid the first stone to the cathedral in Riga 1211; the cathedral was consecrated in 1226 - those brick makers and masons had been pretty busy. The building has been alterend and expanded over the centuries, but retains its Romanesque nucleus. Albert also built St.James' Church for use of the Livonians outside the city walls. It was later expanded with Gothic elements.
Albert of Buxthoeven died in January 1229. One can say that he introduced the German hegemony over the Baltic states that would last for seven centuries.
St.James' Church, interior
In 1236, the remaining Sword Brothers merged with the Teutonic Knights who established a Livonian branch of their order. In 1346, they bought the Estonian lands from the King of Denmark and thus increased their power base.
Riga became archbishopric in 1253. The first archbishop, Albert Suerbeer, had been Primate of Ireland prior to his new position, which he took up against the will of the chapter. He got into conflict with the Livonian Order and was imprisoned until he acknowledged their authority.
We get to a problem typical for Riga: The conflicts between the town, the archbishop who also was a landed prince with vassals of his own, and the Teutonic Knights who also had land and vassals - and ambitions. Those three way problems didn't occur in Gdańsk which was no episcopal see, or in Tallinn where the bishop belonged to the Danish diocese of Lund (now in Sweden), held no lands and was thus less powerful.
Riga was a cornerstone in those conflicts. Despite their problems with the bishop, the citizens of Riga mostly sided with him against the Teutonic Knights since the episcopal tithes and regulations were less severe. Both the archbishop and the order also tried to gain support of the pope.
The citizens invited a Lithuanian garrison against the Teutonic Knights in 1298, after they had ousted the order and destroyed its castle in the town. The grand duke Vytenis of Lithuania, who wanted to keep up the trade via Riga, his country's main access to the Baltic Sea, gladly obliged. The garrison remained until 1313.
It would take until 1330 for Riga and its allies to capitulate. The Teutonic Knights built a castle outside the town walls of Riga - on the site of a former hospice - as seat of the Livonian Master, but they had learned to treat the town more carefully.
As result of the peace, the Teutonic Knights had a say in the election of the archbishop of Riga. Relations remained peaceful for a time, but eventually the order would meet with a man of strong character, like Archbishop Sylvester Stodewescher, originally a member of the order who worked with them against the threat of an alliance between towns and nobility - like the Prussian Confederation (see post about the history of Gdańsk) - against the Teutonic Knights. But after 1452, the relationship soured and Sylvester fought against the hegemony of the order in Riga. He failed to gain sufficient support of the chapter and citizens though, and ended up prisoner of the order (he died in 1479).
Another full scale war between the Teutonic Knights and Riga lasted from 1481-91. The castle of the order was destroyed during the fights, but after Riga lost the war, the citizens had to rebuild the castle. While the order was in slow decline after the battle of Grunwald (1410) in Prussia where it lost western Prussia to the Polish crown in 1466 and was ousted in 1521, it remained more powerful in Livonia where it lasted until 1561.
The Town Hall
Those wars and sieges may have interrupted trade for a while, but Riga remained an important trading town since it joined the Hanseatic League in 1282. Its situation at the Daugava was a central one with a river connection to Polotsk (which was an associated member of the Hansa for some time) and further on to Smolensk. Land routes led to Vilnius and Kaliningrad (Königsberg), and via Tartu (Dorpat) and Narva or Pskov to Novgorod, the easternmost Hansa kontor.
Goods that came from Russia and the Baltic lands were produces of the vast forests, like timber, furs, honey, and wax. Amber, hemp and tar were also on the list, and an important one: smoke-dried rye from the fertile areas of Livonia. The import trade consisted of cloth from Flanders and England, stockfish from Bergen, salt from Lüneburg, beer and wine, spices and other luxury goods.
Riga proved so powerful that it could forbid any foreign merchants - including those from Lübeck, the leading town of the Hanseatic League - any direct trade with its hinterland in 1459.
At the beginning, Riga also was the Lithuanian sea port, but its role was taken over by Gdańsk after the Polish-Lithuanian Union in 1392. Another temporary setback was the closure of the kontor in Novgorod during the war between that principality and the grand duke of Moscow (who would eventually conquer Novgorod) for several years in the late 15th century. But Riga continued to prosper.
The 14th century Great Guild Hall, meeting place of the German merchants
The Reformation made its way to Riga in 1522 with the sermons of the Luther follower Andreas Knöpken. After riots during which Catholic Churches were ransacked, the town council opted for freedom of religion in 1525. Parishes were established and the service held in Latvian. By the midde of the 16th century, the majority of the population of Livonia had converted to Lutheranism.
Riga came under Polish rule in 1582 (see below) and attempts were made to reintroduce Catholicism, though the Augsburg Confession was tolerated. In 1621, Riga was taken overn by Sweden and became again a Protestant town.
14th century House of the Blackheads, interior.
The Blackheads were an organisation of unmarried merchants.
Tsar Ivan IV ('the Terrible') started a war against Livonia in 1558, conquering Narva and Tartu. That war would last until 1583 and involve not only Russia and Livonia, but Denmark which still had interests in Estonia, Sweden, and the Polish-Lithuanian Union (later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), all with different interests and shifting alliances.
The Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights was dissembled after the order and the soldiers of the archbishop of Riga lost the battle of Ērģeme against Ivan's army in August 1560.
The city of Riga - which had been a Free Imperial City for twenty years during that war - concluded the Treaty of Drohiczyn with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in January 1581. It became part of the commonwealth, but retained most of its privileges.
Blackhead House, the cellar
The next war to afflict Riga (and all of Livonia) was the Polish-Swedish war. That war was basically caused by the fact that King Sigismund of Poland also claimed the Swedish throne through his mother Katarzyna Jagiełłonska. The Lutherian Swedes were not keen on a Catholic king who resided in Krakow most of the time, and ousted him in 1599, replacing him with Karl IX, though Sigismund made several attempts to regain his position. Karl was succeeded by Gustav II Adolf in 1611.
The war between Poland and Sweden - and some Russian intervention - about the possession of Livonia flamed up several times between 1600 and the Armistice of Altmark in 1629 where Sweden gained part of Livonia, including Riga, though the town retained most of its autonomy.
Riga Castle, different angle
Like Tallinn, Riga became part of the Russian Empire during the Great Northern War (1700-1721), that involved the Scandinavian countries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Livonia, Prussia, the Russian Empire, Great Britain, and even the Ottoman Empire. Tzar Peter the Great besieged Riga in 1710; its capitualation led to the Peacy of Nystad. Riga became the capital of the Governorate of Livonia.
The Hanseatic League no longer existed at that time, but trade still played an important role. Riga kept a modicum of independence and flourished in the years to come.
Modern bridge across the Daugava river
Norbert Angermann, Karsten Brüggemann. Geschichte der baltischen Länder; Stuttgart 2018
Eric Christiansen. The Northern Crusades; 2nd editon. First published at Penguin Publ. 1997
Jörgen Brackler, Volker Henn, Rainer Postel (ed.). Die Hanse - Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos; Lübeck 2006
William Urban. The Teutonic Knights. A Military History, 2003; reprint by Frontline Publ. 2018
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
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All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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