Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

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Duchy of Courland and Semgallia
( lat. ) Ducatus Curlandiae et Semigalliae
( pol. ) Księstwo Kurlandii i Semigalii
Flag of Courland (state) .svg
Flag of the Duchy
Ducatus Curlandiæ et Semigalliæ 1.svg
Coat of arms of the duchy
Duchy of Courland & Semigallia 1740.svg
The Duchy of Courland and Zemgale around 1740
Capital Mitau
Founded by Gotthard Kettler
Existed 1561 - March 3, 1795
Area was previously part of the Livonian Order of the Teutonic Order
Incorporated into Courland Governorate , Russian Empire
Founding event Conversion of the Teutonic Order in Livonia into a secular duchy
Official language German
Main religion Evangelical Lutheran

The Duchy of Courland and Zemgale was a feudal state in the Baltic States that existed from 1561 to 1795. With the Third Partition of Poland , the duchy was annexed to the Russian Empire . It included the landscapes of Courland and Zemgale . Today these landscapes belong to Latvia .

The duchy came into being when the secular, Catholic- dominated Livonian rulership of the Teutonic Order was converted into a Protestant duchy in 1561 by the last landmaster in Livonia, Gotthard Kettler . The Teutonic Order in Livonia was secularized in its capacity as a religious order .

The Duchy of Courland and Semgallia was under the sovereignty of Poland-Lithuania from its creation until its dissolution .



A Russian advance into Livonia in 1558 by Ivan IV ("the terrible") opened the Livonian War . When Frederick II of Denmark acquired the dioceses of Ösel-Wiek and Kurland for his brother Magnus von Holstein , Sweden intervened, to which Estonia with Reval submitted. The state of the Teutonic Order was no match for its opponents and was looking for a protective power in Lithuania.

Gotthard Kettler became landmaster in Livonia in 1559. After completion of the Treaty of Vilnius in 1561 Kettler was inspired by Poland-Lithuania with the raised to the Duchy of Courland , which also Semgallen belonged to borrow against . In the contract of submission, the duke and the estates had three things confirmed by the Polish-Lithuanian king:

  1. the free exercise of religion according to the Augsburg Confession
  2. “German authorities”, ie the self-administration and the filling of positions from the indigenous , that is from the own ranks of the German-speaking Kurland nobility and the local civil service
  3. the continued application of German law

The area around Pilten did not belong to the duchy , which did not belong to the monastic state, but had formed the independent territory of the bishops of Courland and after the death of Bishop Magnus of Denmark fell directly to Poland as part of the duchy of Livonia . Kettler died in Mitau on May 17, 1587 ; his descendants ruled Courland until 1737.

After the death of Duke Gotthard Kettler, his sons Wilhelm Kettler and Friedrich Kettler divided the duchy into western Kurland and eastern Semgall in 1595 . Wilhelm fell out with the landed gentry, who were supported by the Polish overlords, and finally had to leave the country. Friedrich was able to reunite both parts of the country in 1616. By the Polish-Swedish wars of 1600–1629 for supremacy in the Baltic States, Kurland was less affected as a result. In 1629 Gustav II Adolf of Sweden conquered Livonia except for the area around Daugavpils , i.e. Polish Livonia . Courland, however, remained an independent duchy under Polish suzerainty.

Heyday and Swedish occupation

Under Duke Jakob Kettler (reign 1642–1682) Kurland reached its highest economic boom. The cosmopolitan duke was a supporter of commercial ideas and sought commercial relationships not only with his direct neighbors, but also with England, France, Portugal and others. Shipbuilding and metal processing were promoted. The Courland ports of Windau (Ventspils) and Liebau (Liepāja) became home ports of one of the largest European merchant fleets. Kurland tried several times to establish colonies in Tobago ( New Courland ) and on the Gambia River ( James Island ). This led to conflicts with other colonial powers and locals, which the little Kurland only managed with difficulty.

The end of Courland colonialism came with the second Swedish-Polish War from 1655 to 1660: In 1655 the Swedish army invaded the rich Courland, in 1658 the Duke was captured by the Swedish Count Robert Douglas . The colonies fell to the Netherlands and England, and the merchant fleet was largely destroyed. After the peace treaty Tobago could be regained, but Courland's economic power was destroyed. During the Northern War , the Swedish army invaded Courland from Livonia in October 1678 in order to attack East Prussia from there.

The son of Duke Jakob, Friedrich Kasimir Kettler (reign 1682–1698), carried on his father's commercial policy approaches, but could not prevent the further decline of the economy, especially since he ran an expensive court. To finance it, he sold Tobago to British colonists. Under Friedrich Kasimir's son Friedrich Wilhelm Kettler (reign 1698-1711), who ruled under the tutelage of his uncle Ferdinand and his mother as a minor , the country was strong during the Great Northern War as a result of the invasion of the Swedes (1700-1703 and 1704-1709) to suffer and was even administered by a Swedish governor.

In the field of tension between Poland and Russia

The young duke, who had meanwhile been brought up in Germany, had hardly got his land back when he died in 1711 immediately after his marriage to the Russian princess Anna Ivanovna . The widowed Duchess Anna took her widow's seat at Mitau under the protection of Peter I , her uncle.

Her husband's uncle, Duke Ferdinand Kettler , took office, but lived continuously abroad. When the ducal chamber wanted to collect a pledged property and the pledge holder, Colonel v. Fircks, was shot, complained the aristocracy in Warsaw, and the Polish Oberlehnshof ordered a state administration, the ultimate purpose of which was to formally unite Kurland as an opened fiefdom with Poland after the death of the childless Ferdinand. To prevent this, the Courland estates elected the son of the King of Poland, Count Moritz von Sachsen , as duke in 1726 . However, this choice had no effect because Russia and Poland opposed it. When it was decreed at the Diet of Grodno in 1726 that Courland should be united with Poland after Ferdinand's death, Russia did not agree to this annexation.

In 1731, King August II. (The Strong) of Poland finally agreed to enfeoff Ferdinand Kettler with Kurland. But since he wanted to stay abroad, little has changed. Ferdinand died in 1737, with which the ducal house of Kettler went out. Duchess Anna, who in the meantime had ascended the Russian throne as Tsarina, then succeeded in getting the Courland estates to elect her favorite Ernst Johann von Biron as Duke. The consent of August III helped her . who owed her the Polish crown. However, Ernst stayed in Petersburg, where in 1740 he reigned for the underage Emperor Ivan . After the death of his protector Anna in the same year, Ivan's mother, Anna Leopoldowna , who had become regent, had him arrested by General Münnich and banished him to Siberia. In 1741 Elizabeth I overthrew Ivan VI. She brought Ernst back from exile, but did not reinstate him as duke.

The Courland estates then elected Prince Charles of Saxony as Duke in 1758 , in whose favor the Empress renounced all demands on Courland. After the accession to the throne of Peter III. Meanwhile Ernst Johann von Biron got his freedom again. Peter died after only a few years on the throne, whereupon his widow Catherine the Great succeeded him as Tsarina. She had an army of 15,000 men deployed in Courland and reinstated Ernst Johann in 1763 as Duke of Courland. Katharina herself admitted that this step was unlawful, but considered it necessary in Russia's interests. In 1768 Courland received a constitution guaranteed by the powers of Northern Europe, which was renewed in 1774. Ernst Johann von Biron handed over the government to his son Peter von Biron in 1769 and died in 1772.

End of the duchy

The rifts between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, as well as the distrust of the duke, could not be resolved in Courland - people alternately sought refuge in St. Petersburg and Warsaw. After the third partition of Poland, the Courland Parliament decided to subordinate the country to Russia. This decision was communicated to the Duke for confirmation and approved by him on March 28, 1795 in St. Petersburg, against a pension for himself and his daughters, in a special deed of assignment. In this way, Kurland became a Russian province ( Gouvernement Kurland ) and, alongside the then Gouvernement Estonia (today's northern part of the Republic of Estonia) and Livonia, formed one of the three Baltic Governments , which were initially administered autonomously by the German-Baltic nobility.

Attempts at renewal

During the Russian campaign , Napoleon established a short-lived duchy of Courland, Zemgale and Pilten.

In 1918 , during the First World War , a Duchy of Courland and Semgallia was proclaimed again, but in the same year it was designated as part of the United Baltic Duchy . It remained with pure expressions of will, own statehood was not achieved as a result of the German defeat in the war.

Cities in Courland and Zemgale

Residences of the Duchy

Dukes of Courland and Zemgale

House Kettler

1561–1587 Gotthard
1587–1595 Friedrich


1595–1616 and 1617–1618 Frederick I (in Semgallia)
1595–1616 Wilhelm (in Courland)


1618–1642 Friedrich I.
1642–1681 Jakob (co-regent since 1638)
1681–1698 Friedrich Casimir
1698–1711 Friedrich Wilhelm
1711–1730 Anna (regent)
1726–1729 Hermann Moritz (only elected, never took office)
1730-1737 Ferdinand

House Biron and House Wettin

1737–1758 Ernst Johann von Biron
1758–1763 Intermezzo: Karl Christian von Sachsen ( House Wettin )
1763–1769 Ernst Johann (again)
1769–1795 Peter von Biron

See also

Web links

Commons : Duchy of Courland and Semigallia  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  • Alexander V. Berkis: The History of the Duchy of Courland (1561-1795). Towson 1969.
  • Almut Bues: Courland in the early modern period. In: Acta Poloniae Historica. Vol. 75, 1997, pp. 39-56.
  • Erich Donnert : Courland in the area of ​​ideas of the French Revolution. Political movements and attempts at social renewal 1789–1795 . Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-631-43377-8 .
  • Arthur Hoheisel: Germans and Latvians in the Duchy of Courland 1618–1795. In: Wilfried Schlau (Ed.): A thousand years of neighborhood. The peoples of the Baltic region and the Germans. Munich 1995, pp. 72-80.
  • Mathias Meesenhöller: Class modernization. The Courland Knighthood Nobility 1760–1830. Berlin 2009.
  • Heinz von zur Mühlen : The East Baltic under the rule and influence of neighboring powers (1561–1710 / 95). In: Gert von Pistohlkors (Ed.): German history in Eastern Europe: Baltic countries. Berlin 1994, pp. 174-264.
  • Erwin Oberländer (ed.): The Duchy of Courland 1561–1795. Constitution, economy, society. 2 vol., Lüneburg 1993-2002.
  • Erwin Oberländer: Loyalty and interest in the class. The knights in Livonia and Courland under Polish-Lithuanian, Swedish and Russian rule (1561–1795). In: Martin Wrede , Horst Carl (ed.): Between shame and honor. Memory breaks and the continuity of the house. Patterns of legitimation and understanding of tradition of the early modern nobility in upheaval and crisis. Mainz 2007, pp. 315–333.
  • Erwin Oberländer, Volker Keller (ed.): Kurland. From the Polish-Lithuanian feudal duchy to the Russian province. Documents on the constitutional history 1561–1795. Paderborn 2008 (source collection with detailed introduction).
  • Reinhard Wittram : Baltic history. The Baltic countries of Livonia, Estonia, Courland 1180–1918. Munich 1954.

Individual evidence

  1. Erich Donnert: Courland in the area of ​​ideas of the French Revolution. Political movements and attempts at social renewal 1789–1795. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 15.
  2. volumes Legum, t. VI, Petersburg 1860, p. 209.
  3. Jan von Flocken: Catherine II Tsarina of Russia. Biography . Verlag Neues Leben, Berlin 1991, ISBN 3-355-01215-7 , p. 126.
  4. Jan von Flocken: Catherine II Tsarina of Russia. Biography . Verlag Neues Leben, Berlin 1991, p. 125.