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Baltic peoples: c.1500 BC

During the 2nd millennium BC various Indo-European tribes, speaking what are classed as the Baltic languages, settle along the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. To the north of them are people speaking Finno-Ugric languages, who occupy the modern regions of Estonia and Finland.

The southernmost of the Baltic peoples are the Prussians, who are conquered by the Teutonic Knights and subsequently become absorbed into German culture. But the people in the region between the original Prussia and Estonia retain their Baltic identity. They develop into the modern communities of Lithuania and Latvia.

Livonia converted:1186-1237

From the mid-12th century German merchants and missionaries visit the coasts of Latvia and Estonia, a region to which they give the name Livonia (the Livs are one of the main tribes in Estonia). A German bishop is appointed to the district in 1186. His successor in the see is murdered by his pagan parishioners in 1198. The third incumbent, Albert of Buxhoevden, makes a forceful response.

Albert builds a fortress at Riga and makes this town the centre of his diocese. He also acquires papal permission to found a military order to convert the pagans.

The Order of the Knights of the Sword is established in 1202. With the help of the knights, bishop Albert extends his control along both banks of the Daugava river. Campaigns south into Latvia are carried out by the Germans alone. To the north, in Estonia, Albert enlists military support from the king of Denmark. By 1237, when the Knights of the Sword are merged with the Teutonic Knights, the whole of Livonia is subdued and Christian.

For three centuries the region is harshly governed by the Teutonic Knights (the Danish crown sells them its rights in northern Estonia in 1346). But finally, in the 16th century, the Teutonic order is itself in a feeble and tottering state.

Sweden's gains: 16th - 17th century

The weakness of the Teutonic Order leads to intervention by all the neighbours of Livonia. In 1558 Sweden annexes the northern part of Estonia. In the same year the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible invades from the east. Three years later Poland claims regions in the south.

During the next seventy years, in a series of wars and treaties, Sweden prevails over both its rivals. After the truce of Altmark, ending a war between Poland and Sweden in 1629, the whole of Estonia is in the Swedish empire. So is Latvia north of the Daugava.

Russian encroachment: 1721-1795

The Russian desire to break through to the Baltic is frustrated throughout the 17th century, but Peter the Great finally achieves his purpose in the Northern War of 1700-21. By the treaty of Nystad, which ends the war, Sweden cedes to Russia her remaining possessions on the east Baltic coast. These include the whole of Estonia and the northern part of Latvia.

Southern Latvia has been in Polish hands since 1561. But this territory too comes to Russia in successive partitions of Poland (in 1772 and 1795). So by the end of the 18th century both Estonia and Latvia are in the Russian empire. They remain so until the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution, in 1917.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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