German crusader states (until 1561)

For several millennia the Baltic tribes such as Latvians lived away from the major European conflicts and migrations. They would own wooden castles and sometimes fight each other, but had little relations with the world beyond them.

Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village on a lake (10th century AD).
Reconstructed prehistoric Latvian village (10th century AD). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

That changed by 1100s. Scandinavia was converted to Christianity and Balts thus remained the final major heathens of Europe. German elite was keen to change this, sending missionaries and monks to the Baltic lands. Some of them established cities and asserted political power. As the Crusades in the Middle East were defeated, thousands of German knights also moved to the Baltic lands hoping to at least expand Christianity there. They established Livonian Order (1204) which gradually consolidated vast swatches of modern-day Latvia throughout the 13th century.

Mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.
Two faces of Medieval Latvia: the mythical Latvian hero Lāčplēsis and a German knight.

Other Latvian areas fell under the rule of various German bishops who enjoyed secular powers in addition to the usual religious ones (the greatest bishopric was located in Riga). Latvia was officially named „Land of Virgin Mary“, fitting its numerous theocracies. Latvian peasants gave in, becoming Christians. They continued to work their land and pay taxes to the new overlords who sawn their lands with formidable brick castles and cities of size and modernity they never witnessed before.

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13th century crusader castle in Daugavpils.

The twisted boundaries between the Order and bishoprics would sometimes lead into conflicts between the two powers, but the new primary “conquest goal” of these military-religious statelets lied further south. Southern Baltic tribes refused to Christianise, establishing a powerful Grand Duchy of Lithuania that successfully resisted Crusader onslaughts.

Battle of Durbe by V. Norkus
Battle of Durbe (southwest Latvia), 1260. Lithuanian-led tribes here defeated the Crusaders, stopping their southward advance. Painting by V. Norkus.

After two centuries of war Lithuania Christianised but the Order, too used to live off military bounty in the seemingly endless crusade, refused to leave. However, a series of defeats (not even stemmed by a Order-Bishoprics unification at 1435) would sink the Order into oblivion. All the German states of modern-day Latvia have been conquered by their arch-enemies Lithuanians (allied with Poles) by 1562. The Orders had secularized and converted into Lutheranism shortly beforehand, making Lutheranism the Latvia’s major faith ever since.

Riga in later 16th century
Riga in later 16th century.

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