The Livonian War


By Kara Broughton


Maps:  Andras Bereznay

            Westemanns Atlas zur Weltgeschichte, Berlin, 1953




The ruin of Livonia in the late 1500's was due to a barter of control for the six countries involved in The Livonian Wars (Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden). Livonia was unstable with ongoing tension between the Order of Livonian Knights and the church. The surrounding countries used this to their advantage, because Livonia was an important middle party for trade to them. Although the countries were considered as the players, the rulers of those countries became the stars of the wars. Their petty disputes were the destruction of a land that was vulnerable and trying to figure out how to continue
 Pre-War Livonia

The Livonian Confederation encompassed a large area bordering Muscovy in the east, Lithuania and Prussia in the south, the Baltic Sea in the west, and the Gulf of Finland in the north. It was divided into three areas being Estonia in the north, Livonia in the middle (also the largest portion of land), and Kurland in the southwest.

The ruling forces of the Livonian Confederation were: The Order of the Livonian Knights, who had once been based on Roman Catholic ideas and became secularized in 1562, the Archbishopric of Riga, the Bishoprics of Dorpat, Oesel-Wiek, Reval, and the Hansa towns (the most important being Riga, Reval, and Dorpat). Both the Master of the Livonian Order and the Archbishop of Riga were looked to for alliance and direction by representatives of the Livonian Confederation (with an exception of Dorpat). After the disputes in the early 16th century between both parties, they decided they needed to abstain from further division of the Livonian Confederation due to the fear of attack from Muscovy.







kurland_karte 2Landsknecht3






The Rocky Relationship of Ivan IV & Sigismund Agustus

Tension grew between Muscovy and Lithuania in the late 15th century. The Muscovites fought westward continuously trying to expand while the Lithuanians tried to defend themselves and lost land. With each loss, the Lithuanians signed a peace treaty, breaking it when they built up, ready to fight back. This vicious cycle continued for about 50 years before the beginning of what is marked as the Livonian Wars. (Zur Vorgeschichte 227) Muscovy only kept peace with Lithuania because they had power struggles to the south and east they wanted to have under control before beginning another big battle. Lithuania kept peace while trying to obtain allies help attack Muscovy in order to regain control of their lands (mainly Smolensk).



grozn10  Livonia Displeases Ivan IV

The disruption in Muscovy’s relations with Livonia started in 1554, shortly before the Muscovites attacked Livonia. Different opinions have been formed as to why Ivan the Terrible invaded Livonia and Sigismund Augustus did not. Erik Tiberg and Johannes Renner believe Ivan IV attacked because he was not being paid current and back taxes that the Livonians defaulted on. Oscar Halecki says it is because Heinrich von Galen, who was master of a part of the Livonian Order in 1554, signed a treaty with Ivan IV stating that they would not enter into a treaty with Lithuania for 15 years. Although three years later his successor, Wilhelm von Fürstenberg, made an agreement with Sigismund Augustus because he was on bad terms with the Archbishop of Riga and the King of Poland. While Walther Kirchner shows that due to the disintegration of the Livonian Order, Russia felt the need to attack before other countries took the land and cut them off to the western world. My thought is that the effect of the treaty and the access to more trade worked together as reasons he wanted control over Livonia; while he used the taxes to show he had power over them and as an excuse to attack when they were unable to pay him.


Attack of “The Terrible”

On January 22, 1558, Ivan IV’s armies (also known as Ivan the Terrible) attacked Marienburg and within days took over Narva and Dorpat. Prior to the attack on Dorpat the master wrote to the Bishop of Dorpat offering assistance to the inevitable war, but the bishop refused because he was afraid the Order would attack Dorpat and he would rather be defeated by an enemy than a friend. After the attack the Master of the Teutonic Order, Fürstenberg, sent for help from Emperor Ferdinand of Germany. Unfortunately, the Empire did not have money to help support the Order and Fürstenberg was forced to look elsewhere for help.

Smierc_Podbipiety        VIDEONext Room  deutsche glass 5


A Landtag (a meeting of the leaders of Livonia) met on the third Sunday of Lent to try and figure out how they would defend themselves against the Muscovites. At the meeting they decided they would be unable to defend themselves and to try to obtain an armistice while offering a tribute from special taxes (including Dorpat) to the grand duke. While the Bishop of Dorpat decided he would secretly submit his diocese to Ivan IV as long as they would be free in their religious practices. The offer from the Bishop of Dorpat was heard by the grand duke before the proposal from the embassy and so he declined the money believing that eventually all of Livonia would submit to him (49). Later Christoffer Lustfer, who had delivered the message of submission to the grand duke, was captured and confessed everything then hung himself while in prison.


konniza01              narva groz


Obtaining "Help" from Christian III and Frederick II

Denmark was next in their quest for help. In June 1558, the landtag convened once again to discuss the war. "It was decided, since the enemy was capturing one castle after another, pillaging and devastating the country, and since the forces of the Order along with those of the archbishop and the diocese were powerless to oppose this, that help would have to be sought from other rulers and mighty lords" (Renner 61). They decided to look toward Denmark and sent an embassy to request this decision. Some other people contacted Sweden due to their connection between Estonia and Finland. In the beginning of August ambassadors arrived in Denmark and asked for King Christian III's help in place of surrendering their land to him and he refused it. Later a leader of Dünaburg described their situation and asked Christian III for aid and support and he gave the country some money. Then in December, a Danish delegation was sent by the king to Muscovy to negotiate peace between Muscovy and Livonia. This failed and the Danish delegation went home to find out that Christian III had died and his son Frederick II was their new king.

Frederick II had little experience and different ideas of dealing with Livonia. Johann the Bishop of Oesel sold his see (the bishopric) to Frederick II in April 1559. King Frederick II obtained Oesel, which also included Kurland, for his brother Magnus. The two brothers made a treaty where Magnus gave up his inheritance to Holstein in favor of the bishopric of Oesel and on September 26, 1559 the transfer was made. Moritz Wrangel, the Bishop of Reval, saw the advantage of Johann and quickly resigned his office to Magnus also. Soon after this happened Master Gotthard Kettler decided to make Magnus an ally and met him at Pernau in August. Then along with Archbishop Wilhelm von Brandenburg of Riga and his Coadjutor Christoph of Mecklenburg, Kettler gave to Magnus the portions of Livonia, which he had taken possession of, but they refused to give him any more land.

Magnus was upset he had been tricked out of his inheritance of Holstein. After Sweden took Reval, Frederick II made a treaty with Erik XIV of Sweden in August 1561. The brothers were in great disagreement and Frederick II negotiated a treaty with Ivan IV on August 7, 1562 in order to help his brother obtain more land and stall further Swedish advance.

Erik XIV did not like this and The Northern War between Lübeck, Denmark, Poland, and Sweden broke out. While only losing land and trade, Frederick II and Magnus were not faring well. But in 1569 Erik XIV became insane and his brother John III took his place. After all parties had been financially drained, Frederick II let his ally, King Sigismund Augustus of Poland, know that he was ready for peace. On December 15, 1570, the Stettin peace treaty was concluded.

In 1578 Magnus retired to Poland and his brother all but gave up the land in Livonia. Frederick II had trouble continuing the fight against Muscovy unlike Sweden and Poland. He came to an agreement with John III in 1580 giving him the titles in Livonia. After Magnus died in 1583, Poland invaded his territories in Kurland and Frederick II decided to sell his rights of inheritance. Except for the island of Oesel, Denmark was out of the Baltic by 1585.    S.O.S. to Gustavus I Vasa, Erik XIV, and John III

Due to the opposition by some of the Order and in wanting to remain neutral, Gustavus refused any appeals Kettler made to him or his sons, Erik and John. But in the spring of 1560, Gustavus decided to become active and offered money and mediation in the war between Muscovy and Livonia. Although by that time Kettler no longer wanted Sweden's help and insisted that their offers came too late, afraid that they would lose help from Poland. Emperor Ferdinand of Germany once again asked for Gustavus's help and Poland also began direct negotiations with Gustavus, but nothing resulted because on September 29, 1560, Gustavus I Vasa died.

Once Erik XIV became king he took quick actions to get involved in the war. He negotiated a continued peace with Muscovy and spoke to the burghers of Reval. He offered them goods to submit to him as well as threatening them. By June 6, 1561 they submitted to him contrary to the persuasions of Kettler to the burghers.

The king's brother John married the Polish princess Catherine. Wanting to obtain his own land in Livonia, he loaned Poland money and then claimed the castles they had pawned as his own instead of using them to pressure Poland. After John returned to Finland, Erik XIV forbade him to deal with any foreign countries without his consent. Shortly after that Erik XIV started acting quickly lost any allies he was about to obtain, either from Magnus or the Bishop of Riga.

John III ascended to the throne of Sweden and due to his friendship with Poland he began a policy against Muscovy. He would try to obtain more land in Livonia and exercise strength over Denmark. In 1575 after Muscovy attacked Danish claims in Livonia, Frederick II dropped out of the competition as well as the Emperor of Germany. After this John III held off on his pursuit for more land due to Muscovy obtaining lands that Sweden controlled. He used the next two years of truce to get in a better position.

In 1578, he resumed the fight for not only Livonia, but also everywhere due to an understanding he made with Poland. While Ivan IV concentrating on fighting Poland, John III took the chance to take over Narva, ending the rivalry between the ports of Swedish Reval and Muscovite Narva. On August 5, 1583, Sweden and Muscovy signed a treaty.



image006     Sigismund Augustus Takes His Part

Kettler had wanted the help of Poland and was able to work a draft of a treaty to represent the Livonian Confederation in subjecting to Poland. After the treaty of Vilna was signed both sides saw no advantage to it. In the spring of 1560 the king tried to get stipulations made to the treaty for to obtain more occupation in Livonia. The Livonian Confederation resisted further occupation due to the failed defense taking place. The reason for this is that Sigismund Augustus never really meant to help with the war because of his fear of Ivan IV. In December 1568, the Union of Lublin was signed. The Livonian Confederation along with the Lithuanian nobility and estates unified with Poland. Poland suffered greatly in the Northern War and was ready to make peace with Sweden.   In 1572 Sigismund Augustus died and in 1576 Stephen Bathory of Transylvania was elected to be king and to restore Poland. Obtaining Dorpat in 1580 was an important city for Poland to acquire along with Riga and Pernau. In turn for an exchange for all debts owed to Sweden, Stephen ceded to Sweden all of his conquests in the Baltic region in 1583.



Warfare to Remember

Burning castles, cities and fortresses is mostly how the wars were fought. The envoys would travel on horses, with peasants walking and taking the brunt of the attack. When they were able to get close enough or even sometimes after the attack, they would go through and slay people. Sometimes they would give the defenders a chance to surrender and as they walked out the Muscovites would rob the Germans.

They used many different kinds of weapons. They had arquebusiers, which is described as a gun with a hook on the bottom that can be placed on a support. Stone cannon balls were described as being shot as high as one's knee (Renner 50). Swivel guns, culverins (a slender cannon), hand guns, and target guns were also used.

There was much propaganda put out by the German nobles describing the harm of the Muscovites and which gave Ivan IV his nickname of "Ivan the Terrible". This picture of Ladies hanging from a tree with children dead below shows the Muscovites doing this and is described in German, which most peasants could not read. It describes the terrible, cruel, fear inspiring and unheard of news of the Muscovites. That perpetrating on the captures and prisoners are men, young women, and children on a daily basis are being harmed. This shows the Muscovites as a great danger and that this is a warning to all Christians as to what is happening. This piece of propaganda was done to show that Muscovites were barbaric and how much they should be feared.





ruski zvrstva2   





The next picture presented by the Narva Newspaper describes a victory. The victory in which the Polish, Swedish, and German warriors for Narva in 1578 maintained and won the fight against the tyrant of the Muscovites in conquering them and driving them out. The special granting of God with few people on the 21st day of that month did this. These pictures and warnings were the propaganda that was used to help form people's ideas of negativity against the enemy. The pictures were used not just to form an imprint in one's mind as to the harm that the Muscovites caused, but also for the peasants who could not read.


Post-War Livonia

The "winners" of the Livonian Wars were both Sweden and Poland. Only they could not sustain the peace that they concluded with. Only a few years later they began another war know as the Swedish-Polish War. Although the area know as the Livonian Confederation has come to its ruin, the area where it once was will continue to be in and out of disruption for many years to come.










Frost, Robert I. The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558-1721. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Inc. 2000.

This book was best used for its mention of propaganda. Both of the maps of the Livonian Confederation as well as the pictures of propaganda were taken from this book. There is also good detail as to the peasants and a lot of information on Ivan IV "The Terrible". He uses this as a tool to discuss details that are unusual and useful information, giving a different insight into the people involved in the Livonian Wars, mainly that of the Order and peasants.

Halecki, Oscar. Borderlands of Western Civilization: A History of East Central Europe. (9 June 2002) New York: Ronald. 1952.

The article offers a good overall view of the mid- to late 16th century. He discusses the political outlook through the relationships of the rulers. This is the only on-line article I was able to find that gave good, useful information about the Livonian Wars and all of the players involved. It is an on-line copy of a book that was written in 1952.

Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 1492-1772. New York: Longman. 1990. Pages 418 & 419.

This was used for the picture of the Baltic in 1500. Using this picture is helpful in understanding where all of the countries are that participated in the Livonian Wars.

Kirchner, Walther. The Rise of the Baltic Question. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 1954.

The question that Kirchner wants to reflect is "the influence which this area exercised upon the development of the surrounding great powers" (2). He gives backgrounds for every political figure involved in the making and ending of the wars. He gives a good description to who and what the Livonian Confederation was as well as their disputes and why they were susceptible to ruin. Then he takes each country involved and gives the reason for their specific influence and involvement or lack of involvement into the war. There were so many factors and petty disputes that each country had with each other and within their own country that they brought to fighting for the areas that were once know as the Livonian Confederation. This is best used to know the political strategies and behind the scenes accounts of relationships of the people in charge of the wars.

Renner, Johannes. Johannes Renner's Livonian History 1556-1561. Translated by Jerry C. Smith and William Urban with J. Ward Jones. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press. 1997.

Renner took these notes on the Livonian Wars from the pre-war activities through to the first few years of the wars. He was first a secretary to the advocate of Jerwen and then to the castellan of Pernau. Although he wrote a second addition to his account after Balthasar Russow published his chronicle in 1578 and used some of Russow's more detailed section for the years prior to 1556. This book gives very detailed accounts to attacks on almost every castle or fort in the area in the beginning of the wars. This is best used for accounts of warfare, and for a description of the areas of the Livonian Confederation.

Tiberg, Erik. Zur Vorgeschichte des Livländischen Krieges: Die Beziehungen zwischen Moskau und Litauen 1549-1562. Motala: Borgströms Tryckeri AB. 1984.

The book is written in German, but has a summary in English. It goes into great detail about the relations between Russia and Lithuania, prior to the war through the beginning of the war. Tiberg goes into grave details as to the petty disputes of the two leaders Sigismund Augustus and Ivan IV. Mostly described is the resistance of Lithuania to give into Muscovy and by not recognizing the Ivan IV (grand duke) as Tsar. I was able to maintain all of my information on the two countries through this 18 page summary.

Urban, William. "The Origin of the Livonian War". The Lithuanian Quarterly. 29, no. 3 (1983): 11-25

Urban's article is based on comparing other articles on the Livonian Wars. He discusses the different thoughts on why it began, who Ivan IV was and why he was able to go so far in his attacks with no one helping the Livonian Confederation. He discusses Ivan IV's other conquests that made him wait to begin the war that he so badly wanted. He uses discussions from Tiberg's article as well as Kirchner and Halecki to discuss these various aspects in order to give a discussion in English on the Livonian Wars.





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