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European Kingdoms



Ungenois / Ugaunians (Estonians of Dorpat / Tartu)
Incorporating the Chuds/Chudes

During the first millennium AD 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.

By AD 1170 some of the native tribes could be identified by name, such as the Ugaunians or Unguenois who were located in the south and east of modern Estonia, in the modern Tartu, Põlva, Võru, and Valga counties. The name of this group is sometimes shown as Ugandi, Ugannians, Oandi, and also Ugalased in Estonian, with a possible original form likely to have been close to the modern extrapolation, 'Ugandi'.

Their tribal centre was at Tartu (Dorpat to the Germans). The modern Latvian word for Estonia (the country, but not the people) is Igaunija, which originates from the Unguenois. They were part of a greater tribal body which was known to the early Rus as the Chudes or Chuds, who extended into Karelia and modern north-western Russia. The same term - Chudes - could be used to reference a number of Finno-Ugric groups in the same area.

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.

The Unguenois were generally seen by their southern neighbours the Lats - and by other Estonians too - as brigands and robbers. Jobs would be done in a hurry for fear that the Unguenois would turn up and steal anything they could grab.

The city of Tartu is now Estonia's southern capital and second largest city. Its first mention in any written sources is from a Kievan chronicle in 1030. The chronicle describes the native Ungenois being defeated by the prince of Kyiv. These Kievans were kicked out eventually, perhaps a generation later.

Over the course of its history, the settlement and later city of Tartu was subsequently conquered by the Order of the Knights of the Sword, Poland, Sweden, and the Russian empire, but from 1918 it formed part of a united Estonian nation. However, Tartu was a comparatively late creation, around AD 600. Prior to that, and perhaps later too, it appears to have been Otepää to its south which was home to the main Unguenois stronghold.

Seto People of Estonia

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Gediminas Kiveris, Merit Pai, and Katrin Kimmel, 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), from The Four Oldest Churches of Tallinn (Morgan Studio, Estonia, 2006), from Novgorodskaia Pervaia Letopis' Starshego i Mladshego Izvodov, A N Nasonov (Ed, ANSSR, 1950), from The Chronicle of Novgorod 1016-1471, Michell & Forbes (Eds, Translators, Offices of the Society, London, 1914), 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.)


The Finnic-speaking tribes of the Baltic coast are beginning to change. They have recently begun to enjoy a period of relative wealth and prosperity earned through strong trading contacts with the heart of Europe, notably with the court of the Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric the Great. This extends equally to their neighbours, the tribes of the Balts (such as Lats and Lithuanians).

Tartu's Dome Church ruins, Estonia
Tartu's modern ruins of the Dome Hill Church or cathedral date back to 1234, when a stone fortress replaced the original wooden one of the Unguenois (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Around this time, the Ungenois people of the southern Estonian lands erect a fortress by the name of Tarbatu (modern Tartu) on the east side of the Dome Hill (Toomemägi - approximately where the Astronomical Observatory now stands). Presumably this is in response to an external threat, probably to their newly-acquired wealth.

1030 - 1061?

The Estonian parish of Tartu is occupied for a short time after it is conquered by Prince Yaroslav I the Wise of Kyiv in 1030. Tarbatu is replaced by a new Kievan fortress built in its place, which is named Yuryev or Jurjev.

The Kievan rulers then collect tribute from the surrounding ancient Estonian county of Ugaunia. This possibly continues until 1061, when a Kievan chronicle notes that Yuryev is burned down by another tribe of Ugaunians (Chudes in the Slavic language).

Szybowcowa Hill in Lower Silesia
Slavs migrated outwards to occupy areas of Europe which had previously been home to the Germanic Vandali and the Celtic Naharvali before them, including the rolling hills of Silesia

That act could be the culmination of increasing resistance against the Kievans. In 1060 they launch a military campaign against a tribe which the Old East Slavic chronicles call the Sosols, believed to be the Sakala people to the west of the Ungenois. They too are forced to pay tribute.

In 1061 they rise up against the Kievans to destroy the Kievan fortress of Yuryev (either contradicting the claim that this is done by the Ungenois or, possibly, in alliance with them even though the two are usually inimical to one another). The Sosols at least then go on to threaten Pskov on the eastern edge of Seto territory.

1133 - 1176/77

FeatureKyiv again conquers Tartu and builds it up to become the largest Rus settlement in Ungenois territory. In the second half of this century, possibly after the departure of the Kievans, a wooden church is built in Tartu and is dedicated to St John the Baptist (now St John's Lutheran Church - see feature link).

1179 - 1180

Towards the end of 1179 and into the winter of 1180, Mstislav Rostislavich of Novgorod leads his forces against the Finno-Ugric Chudes. It is certainly not the first such campaign against them but it seems that they are capable of defending themselves. Mstislav returns to Novgorod only to die in the spring (cause seemingly unrecorded).

St John's Lutheran Church, Tartu, Estonia
The stone church of St John was built in Tartu probably in the first thirty years of the fourteenth century as a three-nave basilica

1208 - 1210

The Estonian counties fight various battles to regain lost land from the invaders, gaining their biggest victory at the River Ümera. It is about now that a particular Estonian chief (or 'elder', a more accurate term for the role played by the leaders of each parish) emerges from Lehola (land of the Sakalans in the central-south of modern Estonia).

One of the very few elders to be named at any period, Lembitu makes an attempt to unite the various Finnic tribes in Estonia to fight against the Order of the Knights of the Sword and German crusaders. He raises an army which numbers several thousand and raids south and east, reaching Pskov in the territory of Novgorod, below Lake Peipsi.

Having shown their own disdain for crusader demands, the Unguenois are faced with an all-out war by the combined forces of the crusaders from Riga and the Lets, their traditional southern enemies. Only months after being besieged and starved by Mstislav the Bold of Novgorod and Vladimir of Polotsk in 1210, Otepää is burned by the crusaders.

The Unguenois and Sakalans unite to retaliate. Let territory is raided and the most implacable of their enemies are burned in a like-for-like reprisal. The bishop of Riga is forced to sue for peace, establishing an uneasy settlement between the two sides.

Lihula Castle
Lihula Castle was the first seat of the bishop of Leal (now Lihula) in Estonian lands, with its undoubted mission being to subdue and Christianise the determinedly independent Unguenois


The bishop of Riga establishes an Estonian diocese with a seat at Leal (modern Lihula) in western Estonia. When Bishop Hermann gains the position at Leal he selects Dorpat (modern Tartu) as his capital after taking possession of swathes of south-eastern Estonia.

1211 - 1219

The Unguenois fight determinedly against external control, of course, although in truth though it is a fight they cannot win. They are more successful in their ongoing feud against the Lets though.

Tālivaldis of 'Lettigallia' is one of the leaders of Let fighting against the Unguenois during the entire second decade of the thirteenth century. When they finally capture him they burn him alive. In reprisal, Lets capture and burn any Unguenois men they can find.

River Daugava
The River Daugava, which reached down to Polotsk and beyond, was an important border between the tribal Lats and the pre-kingdom Lithuanians

The Let reprisals are intensely forceful. Just about all Unguenois regions and settlements are burned down or otherwise attacked. The onslaught forces the Ungenois to submit entirely to Riga, accepting baptism in return for protection.

When Vladimir of Polotsk hears this he attacks the Unguenois, forcing a German defence and fortification of Unguenois lands. The Unguenois are now firmly aligned with the crusaders in Riga and the bishop in Dorpat.

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