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European Kingdoms

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Courland (Kurland) / Kurzeme

The Couronians (or Curonians or Kurshes), were a Baltic tribe which lived on what is now the north-western corner of Latvia, immediately to the south of the Estonian island of Saaremaa, and to the west of the powerful Samogitians. By the twelfth century the people of both Saaremaa and Courland had built up a strong seafaring tradition and were actively involved in raiding to the west. Denmark's irritation at such attacks on its territory resulted in several retaliatory attacks against the Balts.

According to Henry of Livonia, writing his Chronicle at the start of the thirteenth century, a lesser tribe called the Vindi also inhabited territory in Courland. They were clearly non-Slavic or Balt in nature and their name is preserved in the River Windau (Latvia's River Venta), with the town of Windau (the Latvian Ventspils) at its mouth. At the start of the second millennium, there are two countries or people occupying this region, called Ventava (the Ventspils area) and Vanema to their east. There seems to be little doubt that these were the northernmost remnants of a Belgic people called the Venedi who once dominated the entire eastern bank of the Vistula.

(Additional information from The History of the Baltic Countries (see the Sources page for Northern Europe), from Eric's Chronicle, and from the 15th Yearbook of the Estonian Learned Society in Sweden, 2010-2014 (Eesti Teadusliku Seltsi Rootsis aastaraamat XV. 2010-2014), Ants Anderson (Ed, Stockholm, 2015).)


By now Swedes have established the stronghold of Seeburg (near modern Grobina) in Courland. This is succeeded by a trading post which survives until the beginning of the ninth century, when the invaders are defeated by the local population.

Couronian raiders
Modern Kurzeme (ancient Courland) forms the westernmost region of Latvia, but in the medieval period it was home to a powerful tribe of Balts called the Couronians


As mentioned by the Norna-Gests þáttr Saga, the king of the Swedes, Sigurd Ring, fights off a heavy raid by Couronians and Kvens into the southernmost region of Swedish lands.


MapThe Danes launch a campaign against the Couronians. However, as part of the feared 'Eastern Vikings', the Couronians fight the Danes in a sea battle, defeating them and enslaving half their number.

c.866 - 894


Couronian leader.


The chronicle of Adam of Bremen reports the existence of a church in Kurland, erected by a merchant as early as the second half of the eleventh century. The monk Hiltinus is appointed bishop to the Baltic by the archbishop of Bremen in about this year. The mission can hardly be considered a success, however, as Adam's two-year mission ends in his death.


Denmark is fast rising as a great military and merchant power, and it is in its interest to end the occasional Estonian and Couronian pirate attacks that threatened its Baltic trade. To that end, a Danish fleets now makes an attack against Estonia. The fighting lasts for three days, but the pirate threat is clearly not contained, as later events prove.


Sverris saga says that King Sverre's brother, Erik, spends three years around 1185 looting Estonian coastal areas and then sails back to Svitjod in Svealand, to King Knut Eriksson of the Swedes, to whom he is related. Svitjod would seem to be Sigtuna, the most important centre in Svealand.


FeatureThe 'pagans of the Eastern Sea' (Estonians of Saaremaa, Couronians, and Zembs of Prussia) conquer Sigtuna, the most important town of the Swedes, which they then burn down. The Swedish Eric's Chronicle of 1335 blames the Finnish Karelians for the attack. More recently, Professor Kustaa Vilkuna has suggested that the raid is in revenge for Sigtuna's merchants having intruded upon Kven fisheries on the River Kemijoki and the hunting grounds of the Karelians. The medieval naming of a settlement in the village of Liedakkala by the River Kemijoki as 'Sihtuuna' may be additional confirmation of this.

Viking remains found on Saaremaa
Two ships were filled with Viking warriors who were killed in battle between AD 700-750, as uncovered by archaeologists on the island of Saaremaa in 2008 and proof of a Viking raid more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances


The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia describes a clearly non-Slavic tribe called the Vindi (German Winden, English Wends). They live in Courland and Livonia, clearly the northernmost remnants of the Venedi. The tribe's name is preserved in the River Windau (in Latvian this is the Venta), which has the town of Windau (the Latvian Ventspils) at its mouth. It is also preserved in Wenden, the old name for the town of Cēsis in Livonia.

c.1200 - 1230


Semigallian leader.

fl 1230

Lamikis / Lammechinus

Couronian leader.

1230 - 1234

King Lamikis signs an agreement which accepts Christianity into Couronian territory. In 1234, a Dominican monk by the name of Engelbert is appointed the first bishop of Courland. The bishopric of Courland is formally declared in 11 February 1232.

fl c.1250


Semigallian leader.

fl 1281


Semigallian leader.

Prince-Bishops of Courland (Kurland)
AD 1232 - 1561

The Northern Crusade saw the Danes secure all of North Estonia by force, while the rest of the Baltics underwent the same process from the south. What is now Estonia and Latvia quickly came to be governed by German prince-bishops in Courland, Dorpat, Ösel-Wiek, and, governing the heart of later Latvia, the prince-bishop of Riga. The Livonian Knights conquered the rest of Latvia and central Estonia. The captured territory between Danish Estonia and Lithuania became known as Livonia. The district of Grobin (Grobina) was ceded to the Livonian Knights. Records regarding the prince-bishops can sometimes be a little sparse.

During this period, important ethnic changes took place among the Baltic peoples. Within the confines of Livonia, the fusion of the kindred Latgals, Sels and Kurshes (Couronians) into one people took place, emerging as the Latvians of the future. They took that name from the most numerous of the Baltic peoples in Livonia, the Latgals (Letti, or Letten). The Kurshes preserved their unique ethnic identity longer than most, being mentioned as a separate people as late as the sixteenth century.

1234 - c.1249


Dominican Order, and first bishop of Courland.


Courland falls under the domination of the Teutonic Knights following their amalgamation with the Livonian Knights.

1251 - 1263

Heinrich of Lützelburg

Franciscan Order.


Courland is divided between the Livonian Knights and the bishopric of Courland.

Bauskas Castle in Courland
Bauskas Castle was built by the Livonian Knights in Courland between the rivers Musa and Memele and was first documented in 1443

1260 - 1290

With the Livonian Knights being severely defeated at the Battle of Durbe in Livonia in 1260, the bishop leaves Courland and only re-enters the territory in 1290 following the successful suppression of serious Couronian and Semigallian insurgencies (in 1267 and 1272 respectively). However, in that year the cathedral chapter is incorporated into the territory belonging to the Teutonic Knights, resulting in the bishopric being subject to the Order.

1263 - 1298

Edmund of Werth

Of the Teutonic Order.

1300 - 1321?


Of the Teutonic Order.

1322 - 1330/32?


Of the Teutonic Order.

1328 - 1331/2

John I / Johann I

1332 - 1353

John II / Johann II

Of the Teutonic Order.

1354 - 1359?


Of the Teutonic Order.

1360 - 1371?


Of the Teutonic Order.

1371 - 1398?


Of the Teutonic Order.


Bishop Dietrich of Dorpat hates the Livonian Knights with some intensity, so much so that he forms a coalition against the Knights with Lithuania, Mecklenburg and the notorious Victual Brothers who are Baltic pirates. The Knights invade the bishopric but achieve no success. In the end their lack of results removes from them the right to demand military service from the Livonian bishops.


The Teutonic Knights conquer the duchy of Samogitia, removing it from Lithuanian control. Their dream of uniting their Prussian lands with those of Livonia and Courland have become a reality.

1399 - 1404?

Rutger of Brüggenei

Of the Teutonic Order.

1405 - 1424

Gottschalk Schutte

Of the Teutonic Order.

1424 - 1425

Dietrich Tanke

Of the Teutonic Order.

1425 - 1456

Johann III Tiergart

Of the Teutonic Order.

1457 - 1473

Paul II Einwald

1473 - 1500

Martin Lewitz


Michael Sculteti

1501 - 1523

Henry II Basedow

1520 - 1521

Courland is made a prince-bishopric of the Holy Roman empire in 1520, with this being formalised the following year.

1524 - 1540

Hermann II Ronneberg

1540 - 1560

John IV of Münchausen

1560 - 1583

Magnus of Livonia

Bishop of Reval and Ösel. Titular 'king of Livonia'.

1559 - 1562

Following Russian provocation and the conquest of Dorpat, the Livonian Wars erupt in the Baltic States (between 1558-1583). Following the dissolution of the Livonian Knights and the acquisition of Livonia by the Lithuanians, the bishopric of Courland falls into Danish hands. In 1562, it too is acquired by Lithuania and reformed into the duchy of Courland & Semigallia under Lithuanian suzerainty.

Duchy of Courland & Semigallia
AD 1562 - 1795

The Livonian Wars took place in the Baltic States between 1558-1583, but the wars ended in 1561 for the Livonian Knights. However, their last grand master became the first duke of Courland under Polish suzerainty, and the knights retained their vast estates in the Baltics. North Estonia surrendered voluntarily to the Swedes. Southern Estonia and the rest of Livonia fell to Poland-Lithuania. In 1562, the German prince-bishops sold off the last of their territory in Estonia and Livonia, including the bishopric of Courland, which was attached to the territory of the Semigallians under Lithuanian suzerainty, although some coastal districts of Courland had already been given away to the duchy of East Prussia.

Medieval Semigallia is better known today as the Zemgale region of Latvia. For the most part it is formed of flat land, largely devoid of uplands and deep river valleys, and boasts one of the most fertile grain fields in Northern Europe, something that has ensured the prosperity of the region for many successive centuries. The region was prosperous, which allowed the building of many luxurious manor houses and castles, one of which survives today - the Baroque masterpiece that is Rundāle Palace. Jelgava Palace, which is also located in Zemgale, housed the dukes of Courland and Semigallia. It is largest Rococo-style palace in the Baltics and today contains the castle museum.

1562 - 1587

Gotthard Kettler

Last grand master of the Livonian Knights. Governor of Livonia.

1585 - 1587

Courland has officially remained a possession of the Danes until now, when it is sold to Poland-Lithuania. Upon the death of Gotthard Kettler, the duchy is divided between his two sons. Friedrich owns the eastern section, Semigallia (Zemgale), from his residency in Jelgava (Mittau). Wilhelm owns the western section, Courland (Kurzeme), from his residency in Kuldiga (Goldingen). Wilhelm regains the Grobina district when he marries the daughter of the duke of Prussia. He also pays to regain control over the Piltene district.

Bauskas Castle in Courland
The former Bauskas Castle, a stronghold which had been built by the once-dominant Livonian Knights, had a Mannerism style residence built into the forepart in 1596 by the duke of Courland, Friedrich Kettler

1587 - 1642

Friedrich Kettler

Son. Rules Semigallia, eastern Courland.

1587 - 1616

Wilhelm Kettler

Brother. Rules Courland, western section of the duchy.


The Swedish king initiates the First Polish-Swedish War by assembling troops in Tallinn, but the war starts badly with several attacks failing, including one on Courland in 1605.


Wilhelm is removed from his seat by his overlord, the king of Poland-Lithuania after he expresses his disappointment with the hostile landowners in the duchy. Friedrich inherits Wilhelm's lands and reunites the duchy.

1642 - 1682

Jacob Kettler

1655 - 1660

Swedish troops enter the duchy in 1655, triggering the Second Polish-Swedish War. Duke Jacob is captured by the Swedes in 1658 and held for the duration of the war. That war ends when Livonia is officially ceded to Sweden following Poland-Lithuania's signing of the Treaty of Oliva.


Landrgave William VII of Hessen-Kassel contracts a fever while in Paris and the subsequent treatment probably does more to kill him than the fever itself. His brother Charles succeeds him, but he is still a minor so his mother continues her role as regent. William's fiancée, Maria Amalia of Courland (daughter of Jacob Kettler), marries Charles instead.

1682 - 1698

Friedrich Casimir Kettler


1698 - 1711

Friedrich Wilhelm

Acceded aged 6. m Anna Ivanova of Russia.

1698 - 1711

Ferdinand Kettler

Uncle and regent. Last of the House of Ketteler.

1700 - 1721

Sweden fights Russia, Poland and Denmark in the Great Northern War. It is ended with the Treaty of Nystad by which time Russia has already gained much influence in Courland.


Ferdinand Kettler

Former regent. Declared ineligible to rule himself.

1711 - 1737

Former regent Ferdinand Kettler resides in Danzig and is therefore declared ineligible, ending the rule of the House of Ketteler in Courland. The duchy is left without a ruling duke, although a large number of potential candidates put themselves forward to replace the Kettlers, including the future Landgrave Frederick IV of Hessen-Homburg. Anna Ivanova is widely acknowledged as the regent of Courland following the death in 1711 of her husband, the former Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Courland. Upon her accession to the Russian throne, she places her own candidate in Courland.

1711 - 1730

Anna / Anne Ioannovna / Ivanova

Acceded aged 6. m Anna Ivanova of Russia.

1737 - 1740

Ernst Johann Biron

Exiled upon the empress' death.

1740 - 1741

Ernst Biron is exiled by the new regime in St Petersburg but continues to claim to rule. The landowners ignore him and the king of Poland-Lithuania announces his son, Carl, count of Saxony, as the next duke. This means the duchy has two simultaneously reigning dukes. To resolve the situation, Russian Empress Catherine II recalls Ernst Biron from exile in 1763.

Peter Biron, duke of Courland
Peter Biron was the last of the dukes of Courland, holding the title for almost thirty years before he freely handed it over to the Russian emperor

1758 - 1763

Carl Wettin

Count of Saxony. Rival duke.

1763 - 1769

Ernst Johann Biron


1769 - 1795

Peter Biron

Son of Ernst.


With the Third Partition of Poland-Lithuania, the duchy of Courland ceases to exist. The duke is happy enough to relinquish the title in return for rewards from Russia. The territory is merged with that of Russian Kurzeme and Zemgale regions of Livonia. The duchy's title goes to the Russian emperor.

Russian Governors of Courland
AD 1795 - 1915

The captured territories were divided by the Russian empire into three Baltic Provinces: Courland, Estonia and Livonia. In 1801-1809 and from 1819 onwards supreme authority was vested in a governor-general who was based in Riga, but at other times the provinces were governed independently. Pilten was a division of Courland created by the bishop of Riga in 1234. It changed hands several times, being exchanged between Denmark and Poland-Lithuania, before being unified with Courland in 1661. Despite Swedish and Russian occupations, it essentially remained united with Courland and was fully incorporated into Courland by Russia in 1796, its previous autonomy being abolished.

1795 - 1796

Peter Ludwig Freiherr von der Pahlen

Governor-general of Courland and Pilten.

1796 - 1798

Gustav Matthias Jakob von der Wenge

First governor of Courland.

1798 - 1800

Carl Wilhelm Heinrich von der Osten


Overall authority in Courland is handed to the governor-general of the Baltic Provinces, reducing the authority of subsequent governors in Courland itself.

Rundāle Palace in Courland
When the duchy of Courland was handed over to the Russian emperor in 1795, Rundāle Palace first became the property of Count Valerian Zubov, then passed into the hands of the Shuvalov family, and was effectively nationalised in 1920 (click on image to view full sized)

1800 - 1808

Nikolay Ivanovich Arsenyev


Jakob Maximilian von Brieskorn

Acting governor, 18-21 May.

1808 - 1811

Johann Wilhelm Baron von Hogguer


Jakob Maximilian von Brieskorn

Acting governor for the second time, Aug-Sep.

1811 - 1816

Friedrich Wilhelm Graf von Sievers

In exile in Riga 20 Jul-Dec.


Napoleon invades the Russian empire with one of the largest armies Europe has ever seen, occupying the Baltic States for several months until he is forced to drag his French-led army back to Germany. Russian control of Courland is immediately restored. The French administrators of Courland are shown in red.


Jacques Étienne MacDonald

French commander.


Jules de Chambaudoin

French intendant, 1 Aug-8 Oct.


Charles de Montigny

French intendant, 1 Aug-8 Oct.


Jacques David Martin

French governor-general, 8 Oct-20 Dec.

1816 - 1824

Emannuel von Stanecke

Acting governor, Jan-Feb 1816. Full governor thereafter.

1824 - 1827

Paul Baron von Hahn

1827 - 1853

Christoph Engelbrecht von Brevern


Aleksandr Petrovich Beklemishev

Acting governor, 10 May-14 Jun.

1853 - 1858

Pyotr Aleksandrovich Valuyev


Julius Gustav von Cube

Acting governor, 10-21 May.

1858 - 1868

Johann von Brevern

1863 - 1880

The January Uprising results in a policy of Russification. It spreads from Latgallia to the rest of what is now Latvia.

1868 - 1885

Paul Fromhold Freiherr von Lilienfeld


Aleksandr Alekseyevich Manyos

1885 - 1888

Konstantin Ivanovich Pashchenko

1888 - 1891

Dimitriy Sergeyevich Sipyagin

1891 - 1905

Dimitriy Dimitriyevich Sverbeyev

1905 - 1906

Woldemar von Böckmann

Courland only at first but later also for Livonia.

1906 - 1910

Leonid Mikhailovich Knyazev


Nikolay Dmitriyevich Kropotkin

1910 - 1915

Sergey Dimitriyevich Nabokov


The position of special plenipotentiary for the civil administration of the Baltic Provinces of Livonia, Estonia and Courland is created, but the following year the Russian governors are forced by defeats in the First World War to withdrawn to Tartu in Estonia.

Jelgava in Courland
Jelgava viewed shortly before the destruction visited on it in the Second World War, when bombing raids destroyed all but the palace in the foreground and a few churches

1915 - 1916


In exile in Tartu, Estonia.


Peter (Pëtr Vasilyevich) Graf Hendrikov

In exile in Tartu, Estonia.

1916 - 1917


In exile in Tartu, Estonia.

1915 - 1918

Thanks to Russian First World War defeats of 1916 and 1917, the Baltic provinces are conquered by Germany between 1915 (Courland) and 1918 (Estonia), much to the relief of the German-descended land-owning aristocracy. In 1918, the Baltic provinces are formally transferred to German authority by Russia following the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk and of Berlin, and Courland becomes part of the subsequent republic of Latvia.