Duchy of Livonia

History of Latvia between 1562 - 1620

Livonian Wars (1558–1583) led to the dissolution Livonian Confederation and the lands were divided between surrounding countries. In 1561 the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, an order of German knights, was disbanded. On the basis of the Treaty of Vilnius, the southern part of Estonia and the northern part of Latvia were ceded to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and formed into the Ducatus Ultradunensis. The part of Latvia between the west bank of the Daugava River and the Baltic Sea became the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, nominally a vassal state of the King of Poland.

Gotthard Kettler, the last Master of the Order of Livonia, became the first duke of Courland. Other members of the Order became the Couronian nobility, with the fiefdoms they had hitherto held becoming their estates. In all, Kettler received nearly one-third of the land in the new duchy. Mitau (Jelgava) was designated as the new capital and a Diet was to meet there twice a year.

Several parts of the Courish area did not belong to the Duchy. The Order of Livonia had already loaned the Grobiņa district (on the coast of Baltic Sea) to the Duke of Prussia. Another district, the Bishopric of Piltene, also called the "Bishopric of Courland" (on the Venta River in western Courland), belonged to Magnus, son of the king of Denmark. He promised to transfer it to the Duchy of Courland after his death, but this plan failed and only later did Wilhelm Kettler regain this district.

Like the other members of the Order, Kettler was German and set about establishing the Duchy along the lines of similar German states. In 1570, he issued the Privilegnum Gotthardinum, which allowed the landholders to enserf the native peasantry on their lands.

When Gotthard Kettler died in 1587, his sons, Friedrich and Wilhelm, became the dukes of Courland. They divided the Duchy into two parts in 1596. Friedrich controlled the eastern part, Semigalia (Zemgale), with his residence in Mitau (Jelgava). Wilhelm owned the western part, Courland (Kurzeme), with his residence in Goldingen (Kuldīga). Wilhelm regained the Grobiņa district when he married the daughter of the Duke of Prussia. He also paid out and regained control over the Piltene district, but eventually it fell to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Here he developed metalworking, shipyards, and the new ships delivered the goods of Courland to other countries.

However, relations between the duke and the landowners were quite hostile. In addition, the Commonwealth, the overlord of the Duchy of Courland, supported the landowners. Wilhelm expressed his disappointment with the landowners, but this ended with his removal from the duke's seat in 1616. Finally, Wilhelm left Courland and spent the rest of his life abroad. Thus, Friedrich became the only duke of Courland after 1616.

From 1600 to 1629, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden conducted a war with its main battlefields around Riga. As the result, Sweden gained control of central and northern Latvia, which became Swedish Livonia. The Commonwealth retained the eastern part of the Duchy of Livonia, thereafter called Inflanty Voivodeship in Polish. Courland was also involved in this war, but did not suffer severe damage.

Reference: Wikipedia

Previous historical period: State of the Teutonic Order (1207-1561) | Next historical period: Part of the Swedish Empire (1621-1721)

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