The Livonian Confederation
By Katy Miller-Korpi




Maps:  Andersen A., Livonian Brothers of the Sword,  

            Black,J., Atlas of World History, London, 2000
            Putzgers, F.W., Historischer Schul-Atlas, Bielefeld, 1929

Pre-Confederation History

The Livonian Confederation was a loosely organized alliance between the Roman Catholic Church, crusading German knights, German merchants, vassals, cities and existing indigenous peoples in the area which is now Latvia and Estonia. In the late 12th century a German monk, Father Meinhard, came to the area with both spiritual and economic ambitions. His goal was to bring Christianity, in the form of Roman Catholicism, to the tribal peoples. Also, the value of the strategic location of the Baltic area between the Roman Catholic world and the Byzantine world, and the possibility for economic exploitation of this region was not lost on the powers of the Roman Catholic Church. Following Father Meinhard, the Confederation existed for almost three and a half centuries. In 1561, as a result of the invasion of Ivan IV and internal political instability, the Confederation came to an end and its lands were divided amongst the surrounding countries. The Baltic Germans did however, establish themselves as the ruling, elite class which held ramifications for this region even into the twentieth century.

The strategic location of the Baltic areas has made them a prime target for other nations’ expansionist ambitions. With shores on the Baltic sea and important rivers such as the Daugava in Latvia, commerce was one of the prime attributes this region had to offer. Prior to the coming of the Germans in the 12th Century, the Vikings developed trade routes through these areas to Russia and Byzantium. Even after the Viking era came to an end, the connection to the east was used by the native population in their own trade ventures. Besides providing an access to the east these areas had natural resources that were desirable to foreign marketers. Amber found on the shores of the Baltic Sea, along with wax, the by-product of bee-keeping, grains, fur and forest products needed for ship building, were some of the natural resources that attracted merchants to this region.

Several diverse tribes of people lived in this region. The Estonians were in the northern region, and in the middle and southern sections of the region were the Livs, Lettgallians, Selonians, Semigallians and the Couronians. These tribes existed as separate entities and all lacked a real hierarchical structure, which made them more susceptible to conquest. Of these peoples, the Estonians and the Livs spoke Finno-Ugric languages while the tribes in the south spoke Indo-European languages. The diversity of language increased the difficulty for these peoples to form alliances.

The ancient religion in this area took the form of animism and ancestor worship. First contact with Christianity appears to have been through the missionary activity emanating from Constantinople. Unlike the Roman church, the missionaries from Constantinople did not come with political ambition or military might. The missionaries themselves were not tied to the aspirations of their emperor or patriarch. These men lived simple lives in huts, often learning the language of the natives in order to win them to the faith. In Estonia there is evidence that all strata of Estonian communities had been impacted by these early contacts (Vööbus, p.40).



The Coming of the Roman Catholic Church and the Crusades

Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism was first brought to the Baltic littoral by a German priest, Father Meinhard around 1160. Father Meinhard’s objective was to convert the "pagan" Livs and establish a foothold for the Roman Catholic church in the region. Proclaimed the first Bishop of Ikskile, Father Meinhard establish his first church at the mouth of the Daugava River. His attempts to win over the Livs were not met with success. In an attempt to entice them into the faith, he commissioned the building of a castle to provide the native population with a stronger fortified position. In return, the Livs were baptized in the Daugava River. However, this conversion was short lived, and legend has that after the castle was completed the local population returned to the Daugava to wash their baptism off. These failures convinced Meinhard that a more aggressive approach was needed. This came in the form of the the first Baltic crusade sanctioned by Pope Innocent III.

Bishop Meinhard was followed by the second Bishop of Ikskile, Bishop Berthold in 1198. Berthold arrived with a contingent of German soldiers. These soldiers were given indulgences by the Pope in payment for their taking part in the crusade. Past debts forgiven and the promise of land were some of the inducements offered to these men. With the intent of forcibly converting the Livs, Berthold took an active role in the fighting and was killed before his first year as Bishop was completed. Berthold was replaced by Albert von Buxhovden of Bremen in 1199.

Bishop Albert proved to be a better strategist and politician than his predecessors. He was able to succeed in the conversion and subjugation of the native populations. Unlike Berthold, Albert employed a more tactical method to reaching his goals. Albert’s strategy in converting the Livs included the taking of hostages. Approximately thirty men from Liv villages were abducted and shipped to Germany to be educated in the doctrines of the Catholic Church and the ideology of the west. Albert made a total of thirteen trips back to Germany to recruit soldiers for his crusades. To these knights Albert gave land grants called "fiefs" which established the presence of German landholders and vassals in the Baltic littoral that lasted for hundreds of years.

In 1201 Albert began the construction of the city of Riga. Albert used Riga as the center of trade and military expansion. The location of the Baltic littoral was of prime significance for the monetary and political objective of the Catholic Church. The play for power over these issues was a constant destabilizing factor amongst the church, the soldiers and the cities. One of the indicators that unification was never established was found in the coinage used. Each group had their own coins minted with different weights and silver content (Urban, Medieval Numismatics). German merchants in the cities increased their economic power base by joining the Hansa League. The League regulated trade and trade issues for ports and merchants throughout the region of the Baltic sea. Riga became a member in 1282.

In order to unite and control the various factions of the German military forces Albert founded the "Swordbrothers" order of knights. Pope Innocent III confirmed the order in 1204. With the aid of the Swordbrothers, Albert was able to subdue the Livs in 1207. With their subjugation came a new tax base for the Catholic church and soldiers for the conquest of the remaining tribes. In 1209 the Swordbrothers conquered the Selonians. Because the Selonians had major control over the trade on the Daugava, they were an important addition to the growing confederation. With these two tribes subdued, Albert and the Swordbrothers set their sights to the rest of the Baltic littoral.

From 1208 to 1227 the Swordbrothers fought with the remaining tribes. The loose configuration of the tribes helped to undermine their efforts to repel the advances of the Swordbrothers. In 1214 the Lettgallians fell, leaving the Estonians as one of the last remaining strongholds of native populations. The Estonians turned to Russia for support against the German onslaught, and in response Albert turned to Valdemar II of Denmark to assist him in his final push for military domination. In 1219 Danish forces took control of northern Estonia. With their superior military technology and greater military numbers, the Germans and the Danes were able to overpower the Estonians. The last remaining northern stronghold existed on the island of Saaremaa. The tenacity of the Estonians living on this natural island fortress thwarted the military advances of the Germans and the Danes. In 1220 the Swedes attempted to establish themselves on the island of Läänemaa, but were decimated by the Saaremaa Estonians. All of the Estonian territories, including Saaremaa, were subdued by 1227. In 1229 Albert died leaving the Couronian and Semigallian tribes yet to be conquered.

In 1236 new recruits to the order arrived in Livonia from Germany. Eager to engage in conquest, they unadvisably ventured into the southern regions of the Semigallians in an attempt to bring this tribe into the Confederation. The experienced members of the order had advised the new recruits against waging warfare in the southern region during the summer. The Semigallians lived in an area of marshes. This terrain enabled them to wage a guerilla-style warfare against the German knights. If the recruits had followed the advice of the more experienced crusaders and waited until winter when the marshes froze over, they may have been able to achieve their goal. Instead, they suffered catastrophic losses and almost all the German soldiers were killed. This defeat brought about the end of the order of the Swordbrothers. To recoup, the remaining knights joined with the Teutonic Knights of Prussia to form the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Knights. This order helped to maintain stability within the confederation by squelching uprisings of native populations. Their defeat by the Lithuanians and Russians in the late 15th century brought Teutonic expansion to an end.

Political and Social Structure

The crusaders were never able to capture the lands and tribe in what is now Lithuania. The subjugation of the Couronians occurred between 1230 and 1231. The Semigallians were able to resist their would be conquerors until 1264. With their defeat, the boundaries of the Livonian Confederation were set, and the Germans established themselves as the ruling elite. In the rural areas, the knights who had been given land became the new nobility. In the cities, the bishops, merchants and ruling members of the order were the power holders. Also, within the ranks of the German community were the clergy. These men were usually new recruits from Germany. They lived in both cities and rural areas. Many of these men were employed by the landed gentry on their estates. Thus, they had a vested interest in their employer’s prosperity rather than in social justice or the spiritual well being of the native peoples. For the most part, these men held no significant power within the structure of society.

As the various tribes were conquered, tribal leaders were established as vassals and given small portions of land in return for their military service to the Germans. In the native populations some peasants had small amounts of land, or enough money to buy exemption from taxation. For the first time, the development of an artisan class was also emerging in the rural areas. For these men, their craft was able to keep them free from obligation and loss of economic freedom. The majority of the natives, though, fell into the category of landless peasants. For most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries peasants were not enserfed (hereditarily tied to a specific estate). They were able to rent or own small farms on the property of the larger manors. The peasant farmers would work not only their own small plot of land, but worked the land of the overlord as well. Besides payment by physical labor, most peasants were required to pay rent, sometimes twice a year. By the end of the fifteenth century the increasing tax burden on the small peasant farms resulted in their being swallowed up by the surrounding estates. Increased restrictions and the burden of debt often became too great for the over-worked peasants. For some, this set the stage for hereditary enserfment. For others, the cities offered relief from the harsh life in the country and the burden of debt to the vassal overlords. Those who were able to take refuge within the cities found employment as artisans, crafts people, and in various support positions. With the influx of indigenous peoples to the cities, came also another source of destabilization of the city’s social and political structure.

The estate owner’s ability to exert control over the peasants was tempered by the sheer numbers of the peasant population. Although they could not command a peasant to pursue a course of action, such as marriage, the owners could use their power as a means of influence by refusing their permission. Also, estate owners did not have the authority to break up families through land redistribution. For the most part, they did not interfere with peasant customs unless they came into direct conflict with their estate’s economic requirements. They did however, have the right to mete out corporal punishment, but excessive abuse was not generally approved. Livonian land owners spoke either German, while the native populations spoke their own languages. This diversity of language enabled the peasant either to ignore or disregard the orders of his overlord. Even with the threat of punishment, this was one way in which the peasant could exercise a small amount of control over his life.

Control over territory was the driving political agenda for the church, the Livonian Order, the cities and the vassals. Power struggles between these groups helped to determine the course of the confederation and undermine its stability. In the thirteenth century, as new territories were acquired, the formula for dispersing the lands was one-third to the Livonian Order and the remaining two-thirds to the church. However, this was more theory than practice. In actuality, the Order acquired more than their designated allotment, and thus controlled more lands than the church.

From the later half of the thirteenth century onward, cities became an important political and economic base of influence. Both the Archbishop of the Catholic Church and the Master of the Livonian Order had residences in Riga. This close proximity of the two most powerful forces in the confederation lent itself to constant dispute and disruption of society. As the prosperity of Riga increased, the issue of control also increased. From 1297 until 1330 the city of Riga, siding with the Archbishop, was at war with the order. Other cities grew up within the confederation and were assigned bishops, thereby increasing the control of the church.

In an attempt to resolve the conflicts between the power holders, at the suggestion of the Archbishop of Riga, the Livonian diet (Landtag in German) was formed in 1419. Those who comprised the diet were the Archbishop, Livonian Bishops, the ruling members of the Livonian Order, all vassals, and finally, representatives of the Livonian cities. Their attempts to find resolution to their differences were not successful. The consolidation of power was never achieved. In the end, the Livonian Diet did not have any significant impact on the course of the confederation.

The Reformation and the Currents of Change

The Reformation was in a sense the beginning of the end of the Livonian Confederation. The already unstable political and military condition was exacerbated by the changes brought by the Reformation. The transition from Catholicism as the main form of Christianity to Lutheranism was not a grass-roots movement. Three influential men of Riga were the first proponents of this new form of faith. One of these men, Sylvester Tegetmeier (d. 1560), has been called the "Father of the Livonian Reformation"(Packull, p.343) because of the crucial role he played in the transmission of this new ideology. With Tegetmeier were Johann Lohmiller (d. 1560) and Andreas Knopken (d. 1593). The zeal of the reformers and their followers not only wreaked havoc on the properties of the Catholic church in Riga, but also set in motion the upheaval of one of the major Livonian powers.

What were the conditions that allowed the Reformation to take hold in Livonia? The political powers and economic control of the Catholic church had created manyadversaries within the ranks of the Vassals. Merchants, property owners and artisans in the city of Riga also resented the appropriation of their assets by the church. The issues of money and power, not faith, were the flames that fueled religious change. By 1550 Lutheranism held the upper hand in Livonia.

For the peasants of Livonia there was really no choice over what form of Christianity they participated in. For the peasant on the manor, those decisions came from the top down. Peasants were required to attend church on fear of reprisal. For most, their lives were still governed by a mixture of pagan and Christian practices. One of the tenets of the Lutheran church is having the Word of God accessible in the language of the native populations. As early as the 1520’s, the first Latvian Language congregation was founded in Riga. The Reformation brought with it the undercurrent of change for the common man, although not realized at the time. The importance placed on the individual language of a people also communicates a value for each individual. Belief in this concept has been instrumental in the pursuit of freedom by serf and slave the world over.

The End of the Livonian Confederation

The territories that comprised the Livonian Confederation had always held an attraction to foreign powers. The sea ports and the commerce they brought, and the stable agrarian economy with a strong work force were factors that appealed to Livonia’s neighbors. By the sixteenth century the surrounding countries were solidifying their power structure and looking for ways to expand their territories. The weakened Livonian Confederation was a prime target for these ambitions. In the east, in the area of Russia known as Muscovy, Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) set his sights on Livonia. Sweden, across the sea to the west, also considered Livonia a prime candidate for their hopes of expansion. Finally, in the south, Poland, which was nearing unification with the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, was looking for a means to broaden its sphere of power. In 1558 Ivan IV was the first to make a move by taking the two northern cities of Narva and Tartu. This action allowed the other powers the opportunity to intervene. In 1560 Ivan dealt a crippling blow to the Livonian Order in the Battle of Ergeme. Chaos ruled the confederation as peasants took the opportunity to rise up against their overlords, and the various territories looked for protection from their stronger neighbors. When the dust had cleared, The Germans in the northern region of Estonia sought protection and came under the jurisdiction of Sweden. The territories not under Russian rule ceded themselves to Poland and Lithuania, and some of the territories in Courland went to the Danes. By 1561 the Livonian Confederation was essentially disbanded.

Several factors aided the ultimate demise of the Confederation. The Reformation had weakened the power base of the Catholic church. The constant struggle for land and power had undermined any attempt for unification of the various power holders that might have strengthened the chances for survival. Forced subjugation of the various tribes and language groups created an environment ripe for revolt. Finally, the main fighting force, the Teutonic Knights, was never to regain its former strength after its losses to Poland-Lithuania.

The legacy of this almost 350 year rule by Germans over the native populations of Latvia and Estonia left a lasting legacy of animosity between these peoples. For centuries following the Livonian Confederation, ethnic Germans occupied the elite positions in these societies. Even into the nineteenth century, if a Latvian or Estonian had the opportunity to improve his economic position it would mean assimilation into the German speaking community. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that Latvian and Estonian nationalistic movements challenged the social structure of their societies. In the 1940s it was on the basis of past German rule and presence in the Baltic countries that Hitler claimed a right to these lands.


1. Bundrage, James A. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, A Translation With Introduction and Notes, Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., United States, 1961.
Primary source with informative introduction and footnotes.

2. Kasekamp, Andres. Characteristics of Warfare in the Times of Henry of Livonia and Balthasar Russow, Lithuanus, The Lithuanian Quarterly, Volume 36, No. 1, 1990.
Goes into the nature of the social structure especially regarding the peasants.

3. Packull, Werner O..Sylvester Tegetmeier, Father of the Livonian Reformation: A Fragment of His Diary, Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. IXVI, No. 4, Winter 1985.
Charts the path of the Reformation specifically in the cities. Goes into the economic implications of the Reformation.

4. Plakans, Andrejs. The Latvians, A Short History, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Calif. 1995.
Information regarding the crusader in the formation of the Livonian Confederation.

5. Raun, Toivo U., Estonia and the Estonians, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, Calif. 1991.
Good basic historic information from the perspective of Estonian history.

6. Winter, William L. The Baltic as a Common Frontier of Eastern and Western Europe in the Middle Ages, Lithuanus, The Lithuanian Quarterly, Volume 19, No. 4, Winter 1973
Overview of society, economics and political structure of the Baltic countries during the medieval time.

7., "The Baltics: Nationalities and Other Problems"
Some mention of the Danes in Estonia and the Teutonic Knights. Tries to trace the ethnic background for the Latvians and the Lithuanians. The bibliography holds some hope for textual research.

8.. "Medieval Livonian Numismatics"
Through the tracing of Livonian coins assumptions can be drawn on the nature of
the Confederation. Both economic and trade issues between the various regions
are discussed. This was my best source of information. The reference page has
many article references that will useful in locating more information.

9. Ages,"History of Latvia"
Basic history of Latvia. One paragraph dealing with the crusades. Touches on the social and economic structure of the Confederation.


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