Tag Archives: Curonians

Crusade against Curonians


Map of Curonian lands before Crusades

After two vital territories of Latvian land had fallen in Crusader hands, it was time to take another free land by force. Courland was unaffected by Crusaders until this day, but now it was their time to take it. The crusaders were aware of Curonian danger- in  1201 Curonians attacked Riga and in 1201 and in  1210 their attack was so great that Riga almost fell. They came from the sea just like Vikings trying to storm the Crusader capital, but were forced to fall back. In 1228 in August 20 Curonians together with Semigallians attacked the Monastery of Daugavgrīva and slaughtered all the monks inside. Crusaders retaliated next year with raid in Curonian lands killing locals and burning farm fields which caused famine. Because of lack of food Curonians were forced to promise converting to Christianity and ally with the Crusaders. At this same year, namely 1229. Bishop Albert died leaving his subjects to continue his mission.


Curonians are attacking Riga from the sea

In 1230 the land of Cursa was forced to sign an agreement with Crusaders. The document containing agreement is first perceived document between Crusaders and locals.  An agreement was signed by Riga Dome Capitolium, Brothers of Sword, and Riga town council and Curonian elders. The agreement forced Curonians to baptize, they were forced to pay fees to Riga and take part in the war against Pagans. The agreement does not give any duties for Crusaders to Curonians. This makes wonder why Crusaders needed such agreement? It could be that the reason was the arrival of new Papal Vice-Legate  Balduin of Alna (from episcopacy of Liège, Belgium) who in December 28 signed agreement with Middle Cursan ruler Lamekin which made him to baptize and becoming a subject of the Pope. This could anger the Crusaders who wanted the land themselves. If Crusaders and town council of Riga knew the Pope’s plan to make a Papal state in Cursa they wanted to sign the deal with Curonians, before Balduin.

This caused conflict between Pope Gregory IX and Crusaders of Riga. Balduin complained to the Curia of Rome, Riga town council was forced to write acquittal letter to Rome and bargained third of land of Cursa from new Bishop Nickolaus. Lamekin ruled large portions of land and were called ”king” (rex) by Germans. Therefore it was important who would rule his lands. In  1231 January 17 Balduin again signed deal with Curonians and made all the lands a Popes property. Crusaders could not act instantly, they were busy driving out Danes from Estonia. Things changed when they managed to recall Balduin in 1234, he was changed by Wilhelm from Moden who was more friendly to Crusaders and given 1/3 land of Cursa to the Order. After the destruction of the Order of the Brothers of Sword in the  1236,  the Teutonic order took control of all Crusader operations on Latvian land. The new Livonian Order restarted their war against Curonians who enjoyed freedoms under Pope’s legate. Curonians were crushed and Curland was split between new Episcopacy of Curland and Livonian Order. Despite that Curonians still managed to resist, mainly thanks to Lithuanians who helped to defeat a Crusader force at the battle of Durbe in 1260. But Livonian Order could survive this blow and continue oppressing Curonians. The small portions of resistance lasted until 1267.

In one of the first posts I described how bravely Curonians fought against the Vikings. But the Vikings were not committed to  conquer Curland but make daring raids. The Crusaders were far more stronger and superior to Curonians. Curonians overall showed by my thought much more lesser resistance to Crusaders than Livonians. Curonians in  1230 already exposed themselves to the Crusaders by signing agreements with them. Again the strong tribe fell because the lack of combined resistance, cowardly rulers like Lamekins and the guile of the Crusaders.

Selected sources

Šterns,Indriķis. (2002) Latvijas vēsture, 1180-1290: krustakari. Riga: Latvijas vēstures instūta apgāds.

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Biļķins, Vilis, (1973) Zemgaliešu brīvības cīņas. Minneapolis. Sēļzemnieka apgāds.

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Curonians against Vikings. The tales of battles and raids.

Curonian Vikings- modern day fiction book

The four Latvian tribes differed from each other in many ways. The Semigallians are said to be mightiest Latvian warriors. That could be true because Semigallians resisted to crusader invasion longer than others did. The Latgalian kings were the richest rulers of Latvian tribes. The wooden fortress and city of Jersika was a large and proud center in Latgale. The last ruler of Jersika Visvaldis is one of the legendary ancient kings of Latvia.  But the Curonians are seen as the great sailors and raiders.  Curonians lived all around the shores of the Baltic Sea.  That’s why they are known as sailors and even as raiders. Today many adventure stories like Curonian Vikings have been made, making the legend of the Curonians as Vikings very popular among national-oriented Latvians.  Let’s just look at some of these tails recorded by Scandinavians.

The archbishop of Habburg and Bremen Rimbert (801-888) tells the story of invasions made by Swedes and Danes in Courland.  First Danish raiders assembled large army of ships and landed on the shores of Courland. The Curonians gathered a large resistance force and defeated the Danish invaders.  They took half of the Danish fleet, gold, silver and other bounties. The Swedish king Ulaf decided to take advantage of Danish failure and sent an army of his own to outmatch Danes. They managed to land unnoticed and attacked the fortress of Zeburg (Ezerpils), they razed it down and pillaged. Overjoyed by their victory they left their ships and gone deeper into Curonian territory. They besieged the fortress of Apulia (Apole) but  met  heavy resistance.  After eight days of bitter fighting the Vikings were desperate and scared by the inability to take the fortress.  They looked for god’s that may help them by making a sacred lottery. When it turned out that none of their gods wants to help them, they wanted to flee.  But their ships were too far away and they risked to be completely annihilated in the bitter chase by the Curonians. In this moment of despair some merchants who were Christians told the Christ may be the only hope. Again they took the lottery and find out that indeed Christ is willing to help them.  The Vikings again attacked the fortress and the defenders were looking for peace talks. While the most eager fighters wanted to destroy the fortress completely, their king decided to negotiate. The Vikings took 30 hostages and gold and silver.

Another popular tale about Vikings and Curonians are a saga of Egil Skalagrimson.  The story tells the tale about Torolf and his brother Egil. Together they managed raids in the Baltic Sea and landed on the shores of Courland. First they assigned temporally peace deal, when it ended they started to raid various parts of Courland. One day they entered the wide river creek and landed on the shore of thick forest. They spread out in groups and found a small settlement. They raided the settlement and the settlers fled with no resistance.  When it’s begun to get dark raiders started to gather up and head for the ships. Torlof returned at the starting point, but there was no sign of Egil. It was too dark to look for him so  they decided to wait for tomorrow.

Egil Skalagrimson

Egil and his man gone thought the forest and found a large plain with houses. They entered the houses, but no one was there, they took all the goods and wanted to leave unnoticed. But then they in grave surprise met the village men in front of them, blocking the way to the forest.  Egil ordered to flee but the wooden fences prevented their escape.  They were captured by the locals and were tied. While locals went on celebrating, Egil managed to untie himself up and rescue his comrades. Egil and his men started to look for a way to get out from the village. In the process they found a large pit where other captured men were held. They turned out to be Danes and they showed the shortcut out of the village. However when Egil and his man left the village, he asked to Danes where he could find a good bounty. He did not want to leave without good pillage. The Danes showed the house of the richest village man. They burned down the rich man’s house and killed all the residents inside. In the early morning they came back to their ships and continued to raid and pillage where ever they could.

There are also records of Curonian attacks against the Vikings. Chronicler Sax the Grammarian tells the story about the Curonian attack on island of Öland. Danes rushed to confront the Curonians. They met them at the port of Jarnlock.  Curonians prevented the Danes from successful landing; they killed many Danish royals and left them in complete panic.  After the sunset Curonian warriors retreated inland and remaining Danes finally established beach positions. At the dawn of the new day battle restarted at new highs. However the Danes managed to form an organized formation when Curonians were just attacking randomly. Danish warriors achieved victory and destroyed the Curonian invaders.

Curonians were vicious fighters, but when they met German Crusaders they fought bravely but were outmatched and were forced to surrender.

Selected Sources:

Radiņš, Arnis. (1996) Ceļvedis Latvijas senvēsturē. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Vasks,Andrejs. Vaska,Baiba and Grāvere, Rita. (1997) Latvijas Aizvēsture 8500 g. pr. Kr.-1200. g pēc. Kr. Riga: Zvaigzne ABC.

Asars, Janis and others. (2008) Kurši senatnē = Couronians in antiquity. Riga: Latvijas Nacionālais vēstures muzejs.

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