File:Coat of Arms of Duchy of Courland.jpg







The Duchy of Courland

By Ray A. Ceaser


Maps:   Andrew Andersen

             Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929





The Establishment of the Duchy of Courland:


The territories that comprised the Livonian Confederation in the Baltic region were militarily weak and losing appeal.  Territory expansion became the new buzzword.  The Swedes, Russians, and Poles saw the weak Livonian State to satisfy their goals for territorial expansion and economics.  The German nobles owned the land and serfdom was the rule.  In 1561 the Battle of Ergeme, a peasant uprising, started the procession for the foreign powers to invade the territory.  First Russia, who took Narva and than Tartu than began its march on Riga.  The Swedes from the North and Poland-Lithuania from the South did not want Russia in the territory.  Together they were able to prevent Russia from claiming the Baltic lands.






The nobles of Northern Livonia asked protection from the Swedes and the nobles of the South asked protection from the Poles.  The Master of the Livonian Order, Livonian nobility in the South, the Archbishop of Riga, swore loyalty to Sigismund, King of Poland in 1561.  Gotthard Kettler, the Grand Master of the Livonian Order, was now the Duke of Courland-Semigallia district and a vassal of the King.  In return, he agreed to secularize all the German noble landowners and provide a military force in war.  He owned a third of the district of Courland-Semigallian and he was given autonomy and hereditary rights that lasted for nearly two and a half centuries, until the final incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1795.


Click here for the list of the Dukes of Courland  The Legal Foundations: Constitution, Court and Diet.


Duke Gotthard Kettler obtained from the King of Poland the Pacta Subjections.  This written document signed by Duke Gotthard established the boundaries of the duchy, religious rights, confirmed all privileges of Courland nobles, right to free commerce, the right to coin money and Poland to recognize all the laws of Courland.  Following the war, he sought to rebuild the duchy that had been destroyed.  In order to enlist the unsupportive nobles, he had to provide them with certain privileges, which initiated the Privilegium Gotthardinum.  Under the laws provided for by Duke Gotthard, nobles had the right to engage in commerce, distill spirits, brew beer, hunt, fish, run taverns, etc., forbid the nobles from taxes and other obligations.  In case of war they were to provide horses and men.  Also rights were given to the nobles to have squires preside as judges on their private manors and non-noble inhabitants.  The nobles were given rights to the land along with the right of enserfment.


Of 359 fiefs in Courland, 72 were transferred as private property and the Duke of Courland received 215 manors. He received about a third of the territory.   Mitau was designated as his capital and May 6, 1571, the government of the duchy was completed.    They also agreed that a Diet or Landtag would meet twice a year.  Upon the death of the Duke they agreed that a government or designated regent unless the heir is not of age, would run the state of affairs.[1][1]



The Religious Awakening:


Lutheranism, Calvinism, Orthodox and Brethren religion was also being challenged by the status quo of Catholicism and Protestantism in all the regions.  King Sigismund Augustus of Poland used to say, “ I do not want to be the master of your conscience.”  Because of Polish religious tolerance, they attracted those that sought refuge and revolution within their borders.[2][2]    In 1586-86 there appeared a handbook (an enchiridion).  The Enchiridion is a simple handbook of the bible.  These emerging theologians believed the traditional bible was written for nobles and the aristocrats and not for the peasants that was an abomination by God.  The handbook was written for those who can experience the gift of God and its Scripture in their own language.  Unlike the tradition Catholicism teachings and to a degree the Lutheran teachings, this portable weapon provided real meaning to Scriptural metaphors.[3][3]  Thus, the writers and translators of the 17th century in making the Word of God available to the peasantry in their languages may have begin to transform the Latvians from their oral tradition.




Duke Gotthard Kettler died on May 17, 1577 succeeded by his two sons.  Trying to be fair to both of them, he divided the Duchy between them.  Friedrich will rule Semigallia and Wilhelm to rule Courland. However these brothers did not get along.  The Polish King had to constantly beak up fights between them.  This infighting weakened the ducal powers and they appointed outsiders to official offices instead of the local nobles. The Swedes, once partners with Poland-Lithuania against the Russians during the Livonian War, challenged the Polish territory of Inflanty north of the Daugava River (the Duchy of Courland in the North).  The war, in some respects, was more severe than the previous battle, because this war lasted from 1600-1629.  In the beginning the Polish were successful but their defenses began to fail.  In 1621 the Swedes captured Riga and 1625 Tartu.  In the Peace of Altmark, the Polish-Lithuanian signed over control over the northern Daugava River territory (Inflanty north of the Daugava) to Sweden.  However this war did not go unnoticed by Russia.[4][4]





The local nobles wasted little time bringing complaints to the King about the brothers that eventually resulted in his intervention.  Wilhelm was eventually stripped of his ducal rights and heredity rights after a commission was appointed to reside over the murder of some local nobles, who were acting for the King.  They were summoned in the middle of night and murdered.  Gotthard and Magnus von Norde, who in 1615 traveled under the service of the King, had verbally abused the dukes in public.  Duke Friedrich had no children, which spelled doom for their Kettlers rule.  Duke Friedrich appealed the King's decision, but the King's position wouldn’t change.  Many other leaders wrote letters to the Polish King to persuade him to appeal his earlier conviction.  Duke Wilhelm moved to Pomerania, where he lived and died before returning in 1638 to appeal the decision.  Right before his death, the King agreed that he renounce his crown in favor of his son, Prince Jacob Gotthard.  Duke Wilhelm died 1640.[5][5]  Mercantilism and Industry:


Duke Jacob Kettler was a very determined individual.  In 1634, he joined the Polish army during the Polish-Russian War.  He was well educated by Western standard.  He became very interested in Mercantilism.  He learned that the peasants for the past several centuries were well known for their skills as daring sailors.  His goal was to improve the treatment of his serfs and beyond.  In 1639, Duke Jacob began to rule over Courland.  He began selecting his co-workers, the Courlanders that studied abroad, as well as foreign advisors.  These actions obviously didn’t set well with the other nobles.  Duke Jacob met his obligations to the King and knew how important it was to maintain a good relationship to prevent interference with his internal affairs.


Though a small country, he competed in the shipping and trade industry, alongside Holland, France, England, etc., and played a crucial role in the history of Gambia of West Africa, and Tobago of the West Indies.  He was the first colonist to bring Protestant missionaries and treat the locals as equals in the African lands.  His involvement in the web of promises and alliances were made and broken.[6][6]  His interest in mercantilism grew as his goals of becoming eventually independent of Poland and economic self-sufficiency.  He brought industries in shipbuilding, timber, and techniques to better farming and he was the first duke in the Baltics to introduce a planned economy.


Duke Jacob founded his first colony in 1642 in Tobago Island, Caribbean and built a fort and set out colonizing the land.  Becoming very wealthy and a renowned among the larger European countries, he realized that in order to have a steady economy, there must be a middle class.[7][7]  But home trouble was brewing. 


Click on the below map or on the flag Drapeau animé de Monaco par Pascal Gross to learn more about Courland’s overseas territories



The Polish-Lithuania-Swedish War:


Following the invasion of Muscovy into Poland and capturing territory, Sweden, unprovoked attacked Poland from the North.  Charles X refused to recognize Courland's neutrality.  On October 24, 1658, Sweden raided Courland, and captured Duke Jacob and inserted William Rumel, the Land Marshall of Courland.  During this crisis, Poland owed her salvation to two events - the formation of a general league against Sweden, brought about by the apprehensive court of Vienna, and an almost simultaneous popular outburst of religious enthusiasm on the part of the Polish people.  Duke Jacob was released in July 7, 1660 upon the signing of the Treaty of Oliva between Poland and Sweden confirming Sweden possession to Northern Livonia.  Trying to recover his lost of colonies was no success. They were lost in a tangled web of several countries who believed they were the rightful owners.  Duke Jacob eventually lost his colonies and his duchy was shattered.[8][8]



The Northern War:


Duke Friedrich Casimir tried to revive his father’s shipping business.  He served as duke from 1682 to1698.  Towards the end of the century, his interest wavered and he had to give up the colonies and the prestige.  The landed nobility used this opportunity to strength their control over the serfs.  Duke Friedrich Wilhelm in 1998, because of his youth, his mother Elizabeth Sofia and his father’s brother Ferdinand acted as regents.  Lacking such leadership, Courland and Livonia became, once again, a staging ground for war.[9][9] 


Peter I never gave up on capturing the Baltic States.  At the turn of the 18th century, Peter was able to gain successive assaults against Charles XII.  Poltava in 1709 and Tallinn in 1710, effectively ending Swedish rule in the territory.  The Nystadt Peace Treaty was signed August 30,1721 and control over all of northern Livonia and Finland was now in Russian hands.[10][10]



The Male-Line of the Kettler ends:


From 1721-1737, the last Kettler, Duke Ferdinand emerges.  At this point, the duchy and Poland-Lithuania is fairly weak.  When Duke Ferdinand dies childless, his widow Anna the Tsar Ivan V daughter, persuaded the Tsar to allow Ernst Johann Biron to be the new duke. Russian domination of Courland-Semigallia was secured.  Russification of Courlandic affairs ended with Duke Peter tenure.  The duke was in constant conflict with the local nobles, those who, however weakly supported Duke Ernst rule; those who thought Courland should be part of the Russian Empire; and those who wanted to steer an independent course. 



Courland’s Annexation to Russia:


In 1763 King Stanislas Poniatowski of Poland-Lithuania was undergoing a civil war between pro and anti-Russian factions.  Catherine the Tsarist of Russia agreed with Frederick II of Prussia and Maria Theresa of Austria that annexing Polish territory would be mutually beneficial.  The Polish Inflanty (eastern Latvia) was annexed in 1772.  Migration from the east in substantial numbers entered the Courland territory.  In 1700, there were 789 estates to the current 1400 estates.  Enserfment grew to 87.7 % of the population.

The Moravian Brethren Movement entered the Baltic lands.  The nobility saw it as a good thing and thought it would make peasant more obedient.  This movement was stopped.  However in 1770, the censorship was lifted. The piestic spirit had already become deeply embedded in the folk memory of the Latvian peasant.  This new religion in the Baltic lands ideology was thought to be a good thing.[11][11]  Opponents of the King of Poland and Patriotic party who formed the confederation of Targowica and the insurrection led by General Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794 was the final assault of a revolutional uprising that was going to be tolerated on Catherine’s doorstep.  Russian and Prussian military intervention put an end to the revolt and Poland-Lithuania.[12][12]


Duke Peter and the Courlandic nobles, at the end of the third partition, were ready to pledge their loyalty to Catherine the Great of Russia.  Tsarine Catherine bought the estates of Duke Peter and the end of a 233 years existence of Courland and the extension of the Russian boarders to the Baltic Sea.


[13][1] The Reign of Duke James in Courland Pg 11-12


[15][3] The Enchiridion of Erasmus, Erasmus

[16][4] The Latvians Plakans

[17][5] The Reign of Duke James in Courland Pg 17

[18][6] The Ancient Couronians in Africa, Anderson

[19][7] Senie kurzemnieki Amerika un Tobago kolonizacija, Anderson




[23][11] The Latvians, Plakans



Anderson, Edgar.  The Ancient Couronians in Africa.

DK: DK, 1970.


The summary page emphasizes in detail the duke Jacobson of Courland (1642-81) reign during Courland expansion into West Africa, the Americas, and Europe.  This was a period during a time when Courland thrived monetarily.  However, the last Courian ship appeared in the waters in 1690.

Anderson, Edgar. Senie kurzemnieki Amerika un Tobago kolonizacija. Sweden: Stockholm, 1970

Duchy of Courland was one of the first European countries to play a role in the West Indies. Duke Jacobson took advantage of the political wrangling and conflict and earned himself a renowned place on the European trading block. The Couronians commodities increased his prosperity. He was known as the first European to treat the natives of Tobago as equals. He provided with administrative jobs, Christianity, and education.


Berkis, Alexander V. The reign of duke James in Courland 1638-1682.

Lincoln: Vaidava, 1960.


Berkins, author, was born and educated in Latvia.  The book identifies the peasant class during the time of duke Jacobson of Courland.  He felt that history writing of Latvia devoted much attention to the noble class and little about peasant history, who were the majority of the subjects of the Duchy.


Plakans Andrejs. TheLatvians.

Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1995


The history of the Latvians and Latvia that is detailed including maps and tables.  The information in this book critically examines a large amount of literature, contains many author’s authoritative insights and interpretations.  Andrejs Plakans is a Professor at Iowa State University.


Erasmus. The Enchiridion of Erasmus.

Translated by Raymond Himelick.  Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1963.


 “Reawakening” of the religious spirit for those who have the Enchiridion.  This book was Erasmus ideal of the Scripture should be easy to read and understandable by anyone.  The first published in 1503 when he was about thirty-five years of age.  He attended St. Lebwin’s school of Deventer and when he was about thirty the University of Paris where he studied theology and confirmed his dislike for traditional scholasticism.


T. R. Jasinski-Herbert, “Polonia Today,” A brief History of Poland,

May 24, 2001,

< > (01 June 2001).


This site is dedicated towards Polish causes across the globe.  The site has several links that emphasizes history, current events, advertisement, and online news.  My material evaluated came from its history link that provided several brief chapters of Polish History.


Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th ed., s.v “The Cossacks.”



The reformation in chapter 25 details the Sweden-Polish War and the Treaty of Olvia.

This site provides a brief history of Austria-Hungary and Poland. 


H. Spaugh, “A Short Introduction to the History, Custom and Practices of the Moravian Church,” n.d.,



John Hus a Roman Catholic Priest became disenfranchise with the corruption of the Catholic Church.  He started to speak out against the Catholic Church and was called before the Council of Constance to recant his words.  He refused and was bound and burned to death at the stake.  Emerged were the new Moravians such as Martin Luther with the spreading of the Protestant Reformation.


M. Dziedzic, “Russian and Eastern Europe Chronology,” The Second Partition of Poland 1793, October 13,1998>

(01 June 2001)

This web site is part of the History Department of North Park University.  The site contains the research of students.  You can find brief history ob the Balkans, Eastern Europe and Russian Chronology.


M. Bjorkman and L. Hult, “The Decline of the Great Power” n.d., (01 June 2001


There are two authors who speak very simple about the subject.  The color background of the article and links are easy to read.  The authors give a brief history of several battles by Sweden from a Swedish perspective. 


G. Eisters, "Duchy of Courland 1561-1795", March 11,1999

<> (06 May 2001)

This site provides a history and a graphic display of historical Baltic and a very brief history of the Duchy of Courland.  The sight shows a list of the rare coins used during the period.  The author is a collector a rare coins. She doesn’t exactly say which Baltic country she’s from, however I suspect Latvia. She provides this website because of little information available on these rare coins in the Baltics.


            Originally published at