At the beginning of the 13th century, the southern part of Baltic region was the last un-Christianised area in Europe, still existing outside the civilised areas. The roots of its structure and assimilation to medieval Christianity are based on the confluence of three major influences: the Vikings, the Germans, and the Russians.
From the 8th to the 11th century, the Vikings expanded to the west (British Isles, old Gaul), and to the East, via the trade route, as far as the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world.
a) Towards the West,
In the 9th century, their first target was the British Isles. This they achieved through the establishment of the “Danelaw”, and devastating attacks on the English Channel coast and the Atlantic Ocean. Little by little, the Christianisation of Vikings and the development of more centralized national borders allowed them to assimilate themselves in the 10th and 11th centuries: the Danish-British kingdom of Cnut the Great (more commonly known as King Canute), settlement in Normandy, and the Norman conquest of England. The Scandinavian power in the Baltics and the corresponding business there became weaker from the 10th century onwards.
b) Towards the East,
In the 9th century, the Scandinavians (the Varangians or the Varyags), merchant-warriors, developed a new trade route between the Baltic Sea and the Byzantine and Muslim worlds. That was via the Western Dvina River and the Dnieper. In 882, Kiev became the capital of “The Rus’”; a Slavic country originally founded and governed by Scandinavians. Their business was focused on fur, slaves, and honey… That is how Orthodox Christianity, oriented towards Constantinople, spread over the region. It quickly reached Karelia, at the head of the Gulf of Finland.
The eastern part of present-day Estonia depended, on Russian principalities, having their roots in the Kievan Rus’. In the western part, it was a base for important raids on the Baltic islands and the Swedish coast. Saaremaa was considered as a nest of pirates. The country grew more wealthy and developed an agriculture based on barley, and constituted small urban areas.
A number of peaceful missions from parts of Denmark (Lund, now southern part of Sweden) attempted to convert the indigenous Estonians (as well as all the Baltics) in the 11th and 12th centuries, but there was no maintainable success.
After the weakening of Scandinavian influence, the German demographical advancement motivated a move towards the “empty” sector in the East, beyond the River Elbe - there a scattered population settled in swampy lands and forests. It mixed commercial development, colonisation and evangelical missions.
After the foundation of Lübeck (1143), the Hanseatic League (also known as the Hanse or Hansa) was created in 1661 on the eastern borders of the empire. It stretched from Visby on the Gotland Island, and spread, with the intention of strengthening and securing the Baltic commerce, as far as the region of Novgorod, to the north of the Russian countries and their fur dealers.
German colonisation gradually advanced along the south coast of Baltic Sea, where the duchy of Pomerania (from Rügen to Dantzig) retained its autonomy. Brandenburg and the new March could not expand any further to the east where they would encounter Poland, already christianised. But on the other side there were Prussians, Lithuanians, and the Estonians, who were still pagans and organised in little groups without any recognised leaders.
At the same time, the bishops from Northern Germany started evangelistic missions. Around 1169, an “Estonian bishopric” was created for Foulques (Fulco) a Cistercian monk from Montier la Celle, near Troyes. The new bishop visited his bishopric once but in 1180 he returned to France. A bishop for Lives (similar population to Estonians, since disappeared) was created in present Western Latvia, but soon the group of missionaries was massacred. In 1186 there was a new Lives’ bishopric created by Meinhard de Holstein from Bremen. To protect the mission, he founded Riga (actual capital of Latvia) in 1200, and quickly gathered a group of knights and defenders. In 1191, he nominated a companion: Théodoric, bishop for the Estonians. Theodoric, during Meinhard de Holstein’s absence, organised, a group of monks and soldiers, and an Order of soldier-monks similar to the Templars of Palestine, called the “Knights of the Sword”.
In 1215, Pope Innocent III placed Estonia under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and named it Terra Mariana. Historians state that it was one of the first countries and nations to be consecrated to the Virgin Mary.
3- The Russian world
In the period following that of the Scandinavian Varangians, Kievan Russia structured itself to control the rivers serving its commercial interests. As far as the Polish boundaries, the princes conquered the Russian areas, and were in conflict with Lithuanians, and in the north in Pskov and Novgorod, dominated the important northern market.. Iaroslav in 1030 founded the future Tartu, subject to Pskov. But after his death in 1054, his empire broke up into independent principalities that were frequently fighting with each other.
The princes of Novgorod (Alexander Nevski) and of Pskov, did not exert their influence on the Baltic region until the middle of 13th century.
The fourth crusade with the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, and the constitution of a Latin Empire within the orthodox sphere, considerably weakened the northern commercial route and the power of the Russian principalities.
Shortly afterwards, the Mongolian invasion (1237), with the destruction of Ryazan, Moscow, and then Kiev, confirmed the Russian decline. The Russian principalities paid tribute to the khan Tatar of the “Golden Horde”, in lower Volga, receiving protection in compensation, becoming a protectorate, respecting the role of the Church. The princes were to be in continual conflict until Ivan III in the 15th century reconstituted the unity of the Russian countries and freed them from the Tatar yoke.
The “Baltic Crusades” established German influence for many centuries in the lands between the Elbe and the Gulf of Finland. Fairly rapidly they managed to create a fragile organisation – the Confederation of Livonia, which was to exist until the 16th century, before the Swedish, and later the Russian domination.
a) Military operations
From Riga, in 1208, the Knights of the Sword conquered present day Latvia, but they encountered strong opposition and hostility from Pskov’s Russians. In 1217, the Battle of St Matthew’s Day, assured the conquest of Central Estonia. But in 1218, a Lithuanian raid penetrated as far as Saaremaa.
The knights, few in number, troubled by the absence of any main route, the swamps and the forests, struggled to assure their conquests. In 1219, the bishop of Riga demanded help from the king of Denmark, Valdemar II, who landed on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland, and founded Tallinn (“the Fort of the Danes”), which he called Reval. He conquered the northern region of Estonia, excluding Saaremaa, which was considered as “the nest of pirates”. In 1222, a general uprising, helped by the Russians, annulled the conquest - except Tallinn until 1227, when the Knights of the Sword re-conquered continental Estonia and crossed the frozen sea to reach Saaremaa. The last fortress: Valjala was to surrender without a fight in February 1227. But the Conquest of the island was to remain uncertain until 1261.
But, as early as 1225, the Knights of the Sword entered into conflict with the bishops, with Denmark, and with Lithuanians who were victorious at the battle of Saule in 1236. Considerably weakened, they merged with The Teutonic Order, founded in Jerusalem, in the 12th century but which had come back to Europe after the collapse of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. After an attempt in Hungary the Teutonic Order, endeavoured to conquer and Christianise the populations of Prussia and Lithuania. The Order of the Sword became a branch of Teutonic Order keeping its autonomy, and known as the Livonian Order.
The situation remained confused, and in 1238 the papal legate, Guglielmo di Modena was sent to negotiate the Treaty of Stensky establishing the “confederation of Livonia” between the possessions of the King of Denmark (northern area around Reval), the bishoprics (Ösel-Wiek, Reval, Dorpat, Riga), and the territories controlled by the Order. For the most part Saaremaa (Ösel) was dependent on the bishop of Saare-Lääne (Ösel-Wiek), with its Kuressaare Fortress (Arensburg). The West and East belonged to the Order, dominated by the Fortress of Sonnenberg (Pöide). A century later, in 1346, Valdemar IV of Denmark sold the “Province of Estonia” to the Order for 19,000 silver pounds.
2- The Livonian confederation
The confederation of Livonia was a loose, weak, feudal, political structure , which stayed isolated from important European affairs. Theoretically, it depended on the Holy Roman Empire but remained independent.
a) The society
The society is characterised by the coexistence of several linguistic communities: more marked in the North (actual Estonia) than in the South (Latvia), where the German occupation had been more important. The lords and religious leaders in their castles, the urban elites, and merchants were German-speaking. “The people of the land” (maarahvas), indigenous, made up the majority of the peasantry and the lower social strata of the urban population. Those who became Christians maintained their freeman status and their properties.
The rural noble domains, of feudal manor-type, progressively became, in the 14th century, the common structure for the country, from the territories of the Danish king, the bishops and the Livonian Order. The Baltic Germans owned the main part of the land; and a minority (more important part was in Saaremaa) was held by the descendants of the indigenous leaders, more or less germanised.
b) The revolts
The burden of the taxes (tithes) and of the corvées (obligatory work) were the causes for violent riots, especially in 1343-1345 during what is known as the “St George’s Night uprising”. The rebels in Saaremaa slaughtered the inhabitants of the Order’s castle in Pöide (Sonnenburg), and attempted to resist in the Karja oppidum. The Order regained control but the country was left devastated with big human losses on both sides. The native farmers’ condition became worse than ever until the establishment of serfdom in the 15th century. In 1346, the confederation extended its properties to the North, sold by Denmark. To lessen the constant conflicts between the bishops, the towns and the Order, the Diet of Livonia was created in 1421.
Meanwhile, southern and eastern neighbours were becoming threatening: In Russia Ivan III freed himself from the Mongol invasion at the end of 15th century. In 1492 he closed the Hanseatic trading post at Novgorod, founded a rival town opposite Narva, and attacked Livonia on several occasions. In the south-east, the Lithuanians, whose prince was to unite his state to Poland in 1385, crushed the Teutonic Order in Tannenberg (1410), imposing on the Order the suzerainty of Poland.
c) The Reformation
The Lutheran Reform, in the early 16th century, reached Riga as from 1521. Between the 1524 and the 1526 a noticeable explosion almost totally swept away the resistance of bishops and those responsible for the Order. Many monasteries were destroyed or closed. In 1533 The Diet of Livonia officially adopted the Reformation. Rural areas that were only superficially christianised, were converted little by little. The bishoprics became Protestant: 1558 in Tartu, 1559 in Saare-Lääne (Ösel-Wiek), 1565 in Tallinn, 1568 in Riga. The bishopric of Saare-Lääne with Johan de Munchaüsen remained Catholic, marginalized by the Protestants. But in 1559 he went into exile and sold his lands to Frederick II of Denmark who in turn gave these areas to his protestant brother Magnus of Holstein who even through he was protestant, became bishop and landed in Kuressaare in 1560.
It resulted from the rivalry of the three rapidly expanding regional powers: Lithuania (united to Poland), Russia, and Sweden – all around a weakening Livonian confederation.
a) Russian attack
The great prince of Moscow, Ivan IV, declared himself “tsar” (Caesar) for the first time, and launched into a policy of conquest, towards Siberia, the Tatar steppes north of the Black Sea, and, to the west: Livonia. The political and commercial Russian interests were different from those of the Kievan Rus’, and were now in the North: Moscow is on the same latitude as present-day Lithuania. They wanted access to the Baltic Sea.
In 1558, Ivan the Terrible invaded Livonia, capturing Narva and Tartu. The Grand Master of the Order of Livonia was beaten by the Russians and had to face a rebellion of peasants. He turned to king Sigismund of Poland-Lithuania for help. To the north, the nobles and bourgeois of Tallinn requested aid from Eric XIV of Sweden.
b) The Swedish offensive
Sweden continued its expansion from the beginning of the century. Freed from its union with Denmark and Norway, it became an ambitious centralised protestant monarchy, profiting commercially from the decline of the Hanseatic League. The Swedish army was victorious. In 1561, the treat of Vilnius confirmed the cutting up of the Livonian confederation: the Saare-Lääne bishopric (Saaremaa and Haapsalu) became a province of Denmark, Tallinn and the areas nearby became Swedish, and the rest of Livonia was split into two dukedoms dependent on Poland: the Duchy of Livonia with Riga as capital (southern part of Estonia and the northern part of present-day Latvia), and Courland, more to the south. Russia kept Tartu and Viljandi. The Livonian Order disappeared and the last surviving knights, who had accepted the Reformation, were integrated into the German Baltic nobility. In Saaremaa, Magnus acquired from Poland the former possession of the Order in the island (Pöide), in exchange for land he possessed in Lääne. The island thus became entirely Danish.
c) Swedish-Polish victory
New conflicts rapidly developed between the conquerors. In 1570, Magnus ceded to Sweden what remained of the bishopric of Saare-Lääne on the continent, and kept only the two islands: Saaremaa and Hiiumaa. The Swedish conquered territory was to keep, until 1920 the name of Estonia, or Eastland (northern half of present-day Estonia). Magnus, in opposition to his brother, became an ally of the Tsar, with the title of King of Livonia, attacked the Swedes with a Russian army (1570). The king of Poland, Stephen Bathory, became allied with Sweden in 1576 to defeat the Russians and besieged Pskov.
In 1582, the Truce of Yam Zapolsky recognized the Russian defeat: Livonia stayed Polish, Saaremaa stayed Danish, the North (called Estland) stayed Swedish and soon to be completed, east of Narva, by the Swedish conquest of Ingria.
The region was thus integrated into Europe and opened up more to western cultural influences.
d) Swedish Livonia
In 1600, a dynastic quarrel between Poland and Sweden revived the war. The nobility of German Baltics chose more readily Sweden (protestant) than Poland (catholic). Gustavus Adolphus II, the young and brilliant king of Sweden, conquered the whole region. In 1629, Poland ceded the Livonian duchy to Sweden, keeping only Courland, to the south of Riga. Very rapidly, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden came to help the protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire in the Thirty Years’ War in Germany, and was victorious over the Imperial armies. He died in 1632 in the battle of Lützen, fighting against Wallenstein. Nevertheless, Sweden, after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), confirmed its domination over the Baltic Sea, thanks to the acquisition of western Pomerania.
A little bit before (1645), by the Treat of Brömsebro, Denmark had ceded to Sweden the island of Saaremaa and its dependencies.
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