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Osilians & Rotalians (Estonians of Saaremaa & Läänemaa)

During the first millennium AD in the Early Baltics, three important cultural regions emerged in the lands which today form the republic of Estonia. These were northern Estonia, southern Estonia, and western Estonia, together with the islands (generally with Saaremaa being the most powerful). The origins of the modern Estonian counties were formed during this period, and these regions maintained their own security and looked after their own interests. Each tribal region (or parish once Christianity had been introduced) was headed by a council of elders.

The island of Saaremaa is the largest belonging to the territory of Estonia. It lies off the western coast, south of the second-largest island of Hiiumaa and west of the smaller island of Muhu. Inhabited for at least five thousand years, in old Scandinavian sagas, Saaremaa is called Eysysla, the same name with a different pronunciation and meaning exactly the same thing: 'island' and 'land or district'. In modern Estonian, 'Saaremaa' literally means 'island land', while Läänemaa is 'west-land'.

By AD 1170 some of the native Estonian tribes could be identified by name, such as the Osilians (or Ösellians, sometimes shown without the accented letters as Oeselians) and Rotalians of Saaremaa and Läänemaa respectively. Together with the natives of the nearby coastal strip of Courland (now in Latvia), the Osilians of Saaremaa were the feared Eastern Vikings during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The Scandinavian sagas mention numerous skirmishes between the islanders and Scandinavian Vikings, and Saaremaa was the wealthiest county of ancient Estonia.

The Estonians were quite capable of defending themselves at this point, having kept out the surrounding Christianised states for the previous two hundred years. It was only in the second half of the twelfth century that the onslaught from the Holy Roman empire began, with more resources and greater levels of well-armed soldiery than the Estonians could ever hope to defeat. With the coming of the Danes and the Order of the Knights of the Sword to North Estonia, the power of the Eastern Vikings was gradually broken (although it took several increasingly militaristic attacks to achieve this), with the result that they were conquered in 1227. Saaremaa, or Ösel (along with Weik, or Läänemaa), remained the property of the prince-bishops of Ösel-Wiek until Old Livonia was swept away by the Livonian Wars from 1559.

Seto People of Estonia

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Gediminas Kiveris, Merit Pai, from Life in Estonia, from The History of the Baltic Countries, Zigmantas Kiaupa, Ain Mäesalu, Ago Pajur, & Gvido Straube (Eds, Estonia 2008), from Eric's Chronicle, 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), from Guide to Castles in Estonia, Mart Helme (Kunst, Estonia, 2003), and from External Links: Archaeology: The First Vikings, and The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Rurik of Novgorod and the Varangian DNA, and History of Estonia (Country Studies), and Eesti õigekeelsussõnaraamat ÕS 2018.)

c.650 BC

A meteorite enters the Earth's atmosphere, breaking up and striking Saaremaa as a shower. At least nine craters are formed by the impact, and the biggest becomes known as Lake Kaali (Kaali järv). The event is remembered by means of the native people's oral tradition and in archaic runes. Kalevala 47 runo gives a very realistic description of fire falling from the sky which burns houses, fields, fens, and humans.

Saaremaa meteorite crater
The Kaali meteorite craters were created around 650 BC on the island of Saaremaa (although that dating has more recently been contested as not being old enough), the most-recent such giant meteorite impact to occur in a densely-populated region on Earth - the largest of the Kaali meteorite craters is a hundred metres in diameter

AD 700 - 750

Two ships filled with Viking warriors who have been killed in battle are uncovered by archaeologists on the island of Saaremaa in 2008. The carefully stacked remains of thirty-three men have been buried in the ship that brought them from Scandinavia to Saaremaa more than a century before the Vikings are thought to have been able to sail across such distances. They are almost certainly Swedes who have been conducting a raid but have been defeated by the island's determined defenders - a sign of many battles to come.

1170

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 which threaten its Baltic trade (these are the Eastern Vikings, from Ösel - Saaremaa, the richest area of Estonia - and the later province of Courland respectively). 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.

c.1185

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.

1187

FeatureThe 'pagans of the Eastern Sea' (Estonians of Saaremaa, Couronians, and Sambians (Zembs) of Old Prussia) conquer Sigtuna, the most important town of the Swedes, which they then burn down (see feature link). 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

1190

According to the chronicle of Novgorod, 'coastal Estonians' - undoubtedly the people of Saaremaa - sail their six snäckas (shown as шнекъ in the chronicle, a Scandinavian type of vessel) to Lake Peipus where they are defeated and killed by the people of Pskov. This would appear to be another smash-and-grab raid, although one which goes disastrously wrong.

1203

The Scandinavian-type pirate ships of the men of Saaremaa - the pyraeticas - land at the settlement of Listerby in what is now Blekinge County in Sweden. There they take part in a continuous cycle of hit-and-run raids between the 'eastern pirates' and the Scandinavians.

1206

The Danish king, Valdemar II, and Archbishop Andreas Sunonis (Anders Sunesen) of Lund, launch a raid on Ösel. Possibly the first state-level military action against the islanders on their home territory, they are forced to submit and the Danes built a fortress there, but they can find no volunteers to man it. Relinquishing their brief occupation of the island, they burn the fortress and leave.

However, they lay claim to Estonia as their possession, which claim the Pope recognises. Andreas Sunonis (Sunesen), archbishop of Lund, is granted the position of governor of Ösel and Estonia itself, despite having no territory to govern. His position - as vice regent of North Estonia is confirmed in 1219.

1206

Andreas Sunonis (Sunesen)

Archbishop of Lund. First governor of Estonia (from Ösel).

1211

The 'Vikings' of Saaremaa attack Turaida Castle, a stronghold of the Livs on the River Koiva. These Livs have been cooperating with the 'traitorous' and constantly encroaching Germans from Riga, both by sea as well as on the river.

Gutmanala cave in Latvia
Gutmanala, close to Riga (to its north-east), was an ancient cult site of the Livs which remained in use right up to the nineteenth century

1220 - 1226

As recorded both by the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia and the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, The Swedes establish a presence on Saaremaa in 1220. Earl Karl Döve is the cousin of King John I, and he and the king's chancellor, Bishop Karl Magnusson, lead an expedition to the Estonian island which is confronted and defeated at the Battle of Lihula on 8 August 1220. The defeated Swedes withdraw, ending their country's involvement in Estonia for the next three centuries.

Despite the Danes having conquered Lindanäs in northern Estonia, their control certainly does not extend to western Estonia. Neither does that of Livonia to any great extent, as the fiercely independent and powerful 'Vikings' of Saaremaa are still a force to be reckoned with. Now they cross the Moonsund with a great host and liberate Rotalia County in western Estonia from the people of Svealand, who have conquered Lihula Castle. How long they remain there is unclear, but the fight against the Swedes continues in 1226 when the men of Saaremaa sail back home from Svealand with a great deal of loot and a large number of prisoners.

1224 - 1227

The role of the Estonian elders is effectively terminated, as Danish and Livonian authority is confirmed in north and southern-central Estonia respectively. Saaremaa itself is decisively conquered in 1227 and Ösel-Wiek is established as one of four bishoprics in Livonia. The territory is divided between the bishop of Riga, the Order of the Knights of the Sword, and the city of Riga. Over the course of the next few years, the city of Riga loses its domain and Saaremaa remains under the governance of two landlords: the bishop of Saare-Lääne (Oesel-Wiek) and the Order.

Livonian Knights
The Livonian Knights - otherwise known as the Livonian Brethren of the Sword, the Order of the Knights of the Sword, or more simply as the 'Order' or 'Brethren' - did the dirty work of extinguishing resistance to the German crusaders and their imposition of order on the Estonian and northern Balt tribes

fl ? - 1251

Ylle

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Culle

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Enu

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Muntelene

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Tappete

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Yalde

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Melete

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

fl ? - 1251

Cake

An elder of Muhu, Saare, or Sõrve.

1251

The elders of the islands of Muhu, Saare, and Sõrve sign a treaty with the Livonian Knights (the Livonian Order has controlled the island since 1237). The spellings of native names which are shown below may not be entirely accurate after being rendered into Latin by German-speaking knights. The prince-bishops of Ösel-Wiek now largely govern the islands.