The birth of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

Course #2 / Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

Stephen Báthory at Pskov by Jan Matejko

In 1561, in the midst of the Livonian War, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was founded after the dissolution of the Livonian Order. The last Master of the Order, Gotthard Kettler successfully adapted to the fall of his Order and became the first Duke of the newly founded Duchy. Its territory consisted of the two historical regions of Latvia – Courland, and Semigallia with the capital city of Mitau (modern-day Jelgava). Duke was enthusiastic about the development of his newly founded state and after his proposal, there were several schools, churches, and poorhouses built around the Duchy.

In the earlier history, these lands and their neighboring tribes were tied in the resistance to the Livonian Crusade and Christianization. Curonians and Semigallians occasionally allied to fight the Knights of the Livonian Order. Since Curonians were known as great sailors and fearless sea raiders, they had a lot of enemies around the Baltic Sea waiting for revenge. Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson described how in the 11th century Danes often prayed in churches: «God, save us from the Curonians!»

Nevertheless, threats of invasion from all sides created a serious split in Courland in the early 13th century. Curonians, who lived in the northern part of Courland and were led by their king Lameikis, decided to make a peace with the knights, while those who lived in the south, kept their resistance alive up to 1267. It is interesting that unlike other tribes, the Curonian nobles (Curonian Kings) were able to retain some of their privileges and avoid serfdom even under the Livonian Order rule.

Semigallian tribe settled in a great location nearby Daugava River. A lucrative and important trade route connected them with the Principality of Polotsk. In the 11th century, Swedes wanted to conquer their lands and control Daugava. However, Semigallians were strong enough to keep the invaders away and Vikings saw a devastating defeat. They also kept fighting the Crusaders for almost the whole 13th century and remained one of the last strongholds of the paganism beliefs in the Baltic region.

At the end of the 13th century, legendary Semigallian Duke Nameisis (also called a King in some sources) first agreed to renew the peace with Livonian Order after the Castle of Tērvete was besieged, but later on, he joined Lithuanians in their fight against Orden Knights. There are a lot of speculations about the fate of Nameisis, but his character was eventually romanticized in novels. Semigallian Duke was portrayed as an inspirational leader of his tribe and symbol of the resistance against foreign conquerors.

In 1289, Livonian Landmeister Kuno von Hazzingenstein led a military campaign that ended the Semigallian resistance. The Knights burned down the last standing castle of Sidrabene and they showed no mercy to the locals. Surrounding fields were largely burned and raided. Since their land suffered such a devastating loss, thousands of Semigallians migrated to the neighboring Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Some joined Lithuanian forces in a fight against their enemies, while others simply eventually were assimilated within the time.

The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia went through the partition in its early years. After Duke Gotthard Kettler died in 1587, his sons became the dukes and nine years later, they divided Duchy into two parts with approval of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Sigismund III Vasa. Friedrich Kettler became the Duke of the Duchy of Semigallia, while Wilhelm Kettler ruled the Courland. However, Wilhelm could not become a respected ruler and after he ordered to kill some of his biggest opponents, his days as a Duke were over. Eventually, Wilhelm was exiled from Courland in 1616. His brother became the sole ruler of the Duchy. Friedrich had the support from the local nobility that was previously angered by the antics of his brother.

Territories of Courland and Semigallia were once again caught in the military conflict. Polish-Swedish War had a great impact on the future of Duchy. In 1622, both sides signed Truce of Mitau that ensured peace for the next three years. Duke Friedrich secured his position and Duchy once again became united. However, this was just a part of Friedrich’s intentions. He tried to convince both sides to accept his Duchy as a neutral side in this war. This was a necessary step since Semigallia heavily suffered from looting, violence against local farmers and famine. Duke was not in a strong position to achieve his goal, but eventually, Duchy got its neutrality and Polish-Swedish War finally came to the end in 1629. This led to somewhat of stability and it was time to recover Duchy from all the losses from war.

Sources | Nikolajs Ķaune. Leišu un poļu laikmets Livonijā (1936) | Jānis Juškēvičs. Kurzemes hercogi un viņu laikmets (1993) | Edgars Dunsdorfs. Latvijas vēstures atlants (1998) | Indriķa Hronika (2001)

Courses / Mag / About Us