Tag Archives: semigallians

The Last Resistance of Semigallians

As said earlier the divided Early Latvian tribes could not form a united resistance against Crusader aggression.   The battle of Saule benefited Lithuanians more than Semigallians or Curonians. The victory of Alexander Nevsky was more vital for Russians. Those failures did not prevent the Livonian Order from continuing the conquer of Semigallia. Since neither Lithuanians nor Russians showed any sympathy for besieged Latvian tribes they were left on their own facing the Crusaders.

At 1271 The Master of Livonian Order Walter from Nordeck felt himself ready to fight the Semigallians once and for all. The all three sides- the Order, The Archbishop of Riga and Town Council of Riga made a deal and passed the ownership of Semigallian land to the Order. In 1271 the Order came to siege the fortress of Tērvete. The fortress was captured, the main source- Livonian Rhymed Chronicle (Livländische Reimchronik) (The Chronicle of Henry ends at 1227) does not give any detailed description of the capture of the fortress.

Next year Walter took his army to Mežotne. It was lost by Crusaders because of failure in the battle of Durbe in 1260. Now the castle surrendered without a fight. In the same year the Crusaders captured the castle of Rakte, this time with resistance. This was the end of Semigallian freedom, they were forced to baptize. Semigallia now formally belonged to the Crusaders. But in 1279 the Lithuanians attacked Crusaders and defeated them, killing 70 knights and Master Ernest from Racenburg. The battle took place near Aizkraukle.

Again the Semigallians rebelled and gave up the Christian religion. This was the time when the Semigallian ruler Namejs or Nameisis came in. He organized an attack to recapture Tērvete. The Chronicles do not give any details about Namejs past and how he became a leader of the Semigallians. Crusaders first trusted Namejs believing he was on their side, but when he came to attack they were bitterly surprised.  Tērvete was captured and Crusaders were enslaved and killed.


Next  battles took over Dobele. Crusaders came from Kuldīga. Dobelians pushed back the attackers and Namejs helped them, but eventually Dobele was captured by the Crusaders. Angered by the Crusader attack Namejs decided to revenge; he planned to attack Riga and started to assemble his army. This was learned by Crusaders in Jelgava and they assembled at the gates of Riga. With them the Riga was protected by knights of Cesis and Latgalians who used the red flag with white stripe. This was the first documented sighting of the future flag of Republic of Latvia.

When Namejs approached Riga he noticed the gathering formations of Crusaders and decided retreat since the advantage of surprise was  lost. The Crusaders decided to chase Namejs; it was winter and Semigallians crossed the frozen river of Lielupe and their horseman’s collapsed into an icy river, they escaped death, but bounty hungry Crusaders wanted to save the sinking horses for war bounty. Namejs used this and attacked them killing and capturing many of them.

During the 1280-1281  Crusaders tried to attack and in 1281 finally they acquired a large strong force and forced  Namejs to burn his own castle at Tervete and surrender. Namejs did not want to live under Crusader rule and with his Lithuanian comrade Traidenis he left his home left his homeland to Lithuania. There he spent his days fighting the Teutonic Order in Prussia and died there. Namejs was one of the best Early Latvian fighters against German Crusader invasion, but he came too late and there were not too many people who could be like him. Today many Latvian men including me were a silver ring called after Namejs. It symbolizes the boys going into manhood. It’s one of the popular Latvian man jewellery piece and Namejs as a name is also favored among Latvians. Namejs was the Latvian Alexander Nevsky. He fought hard and died on the battlefield against his bitter enemy.

The ring of Namejs

However the Semigallians did not give up their fight, in 1287 they approached Riga, but could not go through the stone gates. After this 12 days earlier Crusaders gathered to punish Semigallians at 26 March 1287 Semigallians surrounded Crusaders and destroyed them. The Master of Order Willekin was killed. The new Master Cuno from Hacingstein again gathered force and finally crushed the Semigallian resistance. In 1290 the last Semigallian strong point the Sidrabene was captured. Semigallians was forced to baptize again, many of them leave their land and exiled to Lithuania.   The Crusades in Latvian land ended with the German Crusader victory. Early Latvians and Livonians on the next course of centuries became peasants of German vassals losing their rights and freedom. The long 700 year period of German presence in Latvia left its marks in Latvian history. Nationalists call 12-19 century the “700 years of slavery” when the Latvian nation was enslaved by elite German colonists. It was not that horribly simple to give such name for such long period, but truly the German presence in Latvia was omnipresent and were responsible for making the Latvian nation to what it is today. Germans lived in Latvia until 1939 when Hitler ordered them to return to the Fatherland. Latvians owe many good and bad from Germans and without their presence the Latvian nation would a lot different.

Selected sources:

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

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

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The Crusade in Semigallia and Battle of Saule in 1236


Battle of Saule.

Divide et impera- Divide and Rule or Divide or Conquer was the main strategy used by Crusaders against early Latvian tribes and it worked perfectly all the way. But following this strategy the last conquered force was usually the strongest and resisted till the last man standing. In this case it was the Semigallians who was the hardest nut for the Crusaders. Semigallians together with Lithuanians caused the most causalities for the Crusaders and even brought them at the brink of destruction. But it was not enough to defeat them completely because Semigallians cared little to help other tribes and fought only for themselves. That’s why divide et impera strategy works when resistance lacks unity. But despite of that the Semigallian resistance and victory at Saule needs detailed look, for every form of resistance needs to be judged.

German merchants visited Semigallian trade ports before the start of the Crusade. The port named Semigallia located near the river island Dole in a river of Daugava was attacked by the Russians of Polotsk and Livonians. When the Crusaders came the Livonians took control of this port. At 1185 and 1203 Semigallians attacked Crusader strong point’s trying to drive them out of river Daugava waterway. But the Crusaders were too strong and Semigallians were forced to make peace. This was because of Lithuanian threat who made large raids against Semigallians, Livonians, Latgalians, Estonians and even the people of Saami. This caused the Semigallian ruler of Tervete Viestards to offer an alliance to the Germans against the Lithuanians. To ensure the power of alliance the Crusaders asked to send hostages from every Semigallian palace to them. And Viestards did so, showing he had a strength to control large parts of Semigallia. The alliance did not command the Semigallians to convert to Christianity. Together they defeated the Lithuanians, this vital for both sides for the Lithuanian forces could destroy them both.

In 1206 and 1208 the Semigallian- Crusader alliance was still functioning, for they both attacked the Livonian castle of Turaida and attacked Lithuanians. But in 1208 when Crusaders made incursions into Lithuanian land the Semigallians left Crusaders alone against the Lithuanians. This marked the end of the alliance. In 1210 when Curonians tried to take Riga from the sea the Semigallians were asked to help them. But they just awaited the end of battle and when Curonians failed they retreated without a fight. We could only speculate what could happen if a joint Curonian-Semigallian strike on Riga from land and sea could occur.

But in 1219 Semigallians were again atacked by Lithuanians. Again they asked for Crusader help, but this time they only offered help when castle of Mežotne was forced to baptize. But Viestards of Tervete was against this and broke formal alliance with the Crusaders and siege the Crusader occupied Mežotne. In the bitter battle he lost the son of his sister and retreated, but then he crushed the reinforcements from Riga. The small garrison of Mežotne was forced to flee. Now Semigallians was fully against Crusaders and even made alliances with Lithuanians. This decision was probably based on forced baptizing of Mežotne castle.  Semigallians finally witnessed the German Crusaders as the true enemy rather than Lithuanians. Lithuanians were not primarily interested in taking Semigallian land or freedom but Crusaders certainly had this desire.

In 1220 the Crusaders took a revenge action against the “heathen peoples” of Mežotne. A large force commanded by Bishop Albert himself assembled with siege weapons attacked the Mežotne. The powerful siege weapons destroyed the wooden walls and defenders were forced to ask peace. Crusaders wanted full capitulation which was overruled by the defenders and the battle continued. At this time the forces by Viestards and Lithuanians were near the battle site, but again for some reason they did not take active part in the battle. Mežotne was burned to the ground and this showed that Semigallians were divided in their own ranks. Mežotne was an eastern Semigallian castle, Viestards was western Semmigalian ruler. Because the Mežotne declined his rule he left it in dismay. His army could easily attack Crusaders from the back ending the siege and gain important victory. But his own ambitions were too strong to help his fellow tribesman.

In 1236 the major event took place. The new party of the Crusaders came from Holstein, Germany. The bulla by Pope issued the war against Lithuanian pagans. In September 1236 the Crusaders attacked some Samogitian settlements. On their return they faced armed forces of Samogitian at the river crossing. Crusaders refused to fight because they may lose their horses in the swampland. Others refused to fight on foot and knights were forced to camp for the night. Next day a large force by Lithuanians and Samogitians lead by Duke Vykintas and Mindaugas the – future king of Lithuania assembled near the camp. They attacked the Crusaders in their camp and killed them and forced them all to flee. But the fleeing Knights were allegedly killed by Semigallians. So the Brothers of Sword lost 48 men the core of the Order and this was a disaster.


The battle sheds many mysteries and myths. For instance we don’t know  the exact site of the battle. There are two possible variants- the village Vecsaule in Latvia near Bauska could be the site. The other site in Lithuania is the city of Šiauliai. Saule means sun in both Latvian and Lithuanian languages. So it could occur in both places associated with name Saule.

The next thing about the Battle of Saule is the myth of Baltic unity in the events of the battle. Nationalists tend to believe that Crusader defeat was a achieved both by Lithuanians and Latvians. The Semigallians killed the departing Crusaders on their way to Riga so they helped the crush of Order in some way, but it’s rather skeptical that they acted together with Lithuanians. They just witnessed the Crusader defeat and took the chance to kill some running Crusaders. It was really a Lithuanian achievement, the Semmigallian role, if they even had a role was the role of running rat trapper. But despite of that the September 22, the date of the battle,  is officially considered as Baltic Unity Day. It’s not a holiday, but it serves as the date for nationalists and Medieval fans to celebrate the battle. Usually the simulations of battle occur and folk bands gather around. The first pagan metal album of band Skyforger is named after the Battle of Saule. The album is a classic example of the history of Latvian heavy metal. Even more classic is the painting by Voldemar Vimba showing both Baltic nations destroying the enemy.

The Battle of Saule in 1236 was an epic event which halted the Crusader advance for decades. Semigallians were at peace for some years but Lithunians showed that they were too strong to be easily taken. The Order of Brotherhood of Sword ceased to exist because of the enormous casualties. To look at this event from a skeptical point of view the victory took place because of Crusader adventurism and incompetence. They left themselves exposed to Lithuanians when they decided to camp down instead of immediate action. But the importance of the battle is not questionable it was the main failure of Crusader invasion. It was enough to halt the advance on Lithuania, but not enough to stop advancing against Curonians and Semigallians. This will be discussed in future posts.

Selected Sources

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

Baltijas valstu vēsture : mācību līdzeklis (2000). Riga. Zvaigzne ABC.

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

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