Estonia during the reign of the absolutist King Charles XI. The Great Reduction of manors

The reign of King Charles XI (1672–1697) brought drastic changes into Sweden’s policy in its overseas provinces. As a result of the continuous warfare and the transfer of the crown properties into private possession, the revenues of the Swedish state had diminished and after the Thirty Years’ War the economy weakened. The expenses of Sweden’s empire were high, and to increase its revenues, there began the reduction of the possessions of the nobility. The reduction of manorial lands was linked to another radical change — the formation of absolutist monarchy under Charles XI, which sought to strengthen central authority in all parts of the empire and promoted strong links between the mainland and the overseas provinces. This presumed economic growth, which could be achieved by the increase in crown property.

After a new exhausting war (against the Prince of Brandenburg and his allies in 1675–1678), the Swedish Riksdag declared the so-called Great Reduction in 1680. While the former reductions had not spread to Estonia and Livonia, this decision extended to these areas as well. All holdings which had gone into private possession since the beginning of Swedish rule were to be reduced. This requirement met with fierce opposition from the local nobility, which had both an economic and legal basis. The local upper classes saw this decision by the Swedish Riksdag — taken without the approval of the local Landtags — as a violation of their rights, as the dual government of state and aristocracy which had functioned so far; in the understanding of the Livonian nobility the overseas provinces were linked to Sweden through a union. In Estonia, where land ownership was more clearly determined and there were more manors passed on according to an ancient inheritance law, the 1680 reduction went quite peacefully. There was no opposition to it in Saaremaa where most of the land was crown property anyway. The Livonian nobility had much more to lose, and the conflict over the reduction ended with the disbanding of the Livonian regional diets (1694). From then on, Landtags were only convened by the governor-general.

In the process of the reduction five sixths of all noble holdings went into the crown possession, whereas in Estonia it was more than a half and in Saaremaa a quarter. The crown manors were rented to previous owners, either permanently or temporarily. The new tenants were also from other classes — wealthy burghers, etc.; the peasants who had worked in private lands worked now for the crown. The tenants paid relatively low rents, partly in grain, partly in money.

In the course of the reduction an inventory of lands was also taken and maps were made, which continued until the outbreak of the Great Northern War. In addition to the size of the land its fertility was estimated. The relations, rights and duties of tenants and peasants were determined. The fact that peasants were involved in assessing the quality of land enabled them to share in the determination of the corvée, whose level was then registered. The tenants were not allowed to beat farmers; peasants could sue the tenants, even appeal to the king himself. It was forbidden to sell peasants without land, to send them away from their lands or to take over their lands. The status of Estonian peasants on crown manors was not yet comparable to free peasants in Sweden, but it was much better than the status of peasants on private lands. Charles XI, often called the ‘King of the Peasants’, had announced his intention to abolish serfdom in Estonian crown manors when the reduction started, as serfdom was peculiar to Baltic provinces. After the peasants of the former private lands had become king’s subjects their legal status changed, to the extent that one might speak of the abolition of serfdom on reduced holdings.

By the end of the Swedish time, the network of postal stations on Estonian territory had gained a firmer ground. Well-functioning postal services were of immense importance in the communication between the overseas provinces and the ‘mainland’. More attention was thus paid to the maintenance of roads as well.

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