Relations between Old Livonia and its neighbouring countries

The late 16th century and the 17th century saw the breaking up of the medieval estate system, the formation of absolutist nation states and the modernisation of societies in Europe. This is the period when capitalist relations of production and humanist and rationalist thinking became established. The formation of national superpowers was accompanied by political and economic strife in Europe and the colonies. Warfare was incited by enmities between Catholics and Protestants.

The whole of 17th-century European history was influenced by the strengthening of a centralised Russia. By the late 15th century, Moscow had subjected other Russian principalities (including Novgorod and Pskov, Estonia’s immediate neighbours) and destroyed Mongol–Tatar supremacy that had lasted since the 13th century. The imperialist ambitions which grew with successful wars were supported by ideological expansion: Moscow was seen as the ‘third Rome’ and the ‘new Israel’. The Grand Prince of Moscow was regarded as the Head of the Orthodox world. These tendencies manifested themselves during the reign of Grand Prince Ivan III (1462–1505) and became more pronounced during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530/1547–1584). The administrative, judicial and military reforms carried out by Ivan IV, who had had himself crowned the first Russian tsar in 1547, laid a firm foundation for absolutism and a governmental structure befitting a great power. In the 1550s Moscow defeated the Kazan and Astrakhan Tatar khanates, and gained control over the trading route along the Volga River which led to the Caspian Sea and from there to the Oriental countries. The tsar intended to expand Russian territories and, by capturing Livonia, to gain mastery of the Baltic Sea: an uniting link between Russia and Western Europe.

The aspirations of the Russian tsar collided inevitably with those of other eastern and northern European monarchs: from the end of the 15th century onwards, the main opponents were Poland and Lithuania, which became a Polish-centred union, with an elected king and a government of nobles, the Rzeczpospolita. Sweden cast aside Danish hegemony and adopted Lutheranism to become a great power in the first half of the 16th century. Finland, Estonia’s neighbour in the north, was under Swedish rule from the 14th century.

In Old Livonia (present-day Estonia and North Latvia), the 13th century division into five rival small states was preserved until the mid-16th century (the State of the Livonian Order, the Archbishopric of Riga, the bishoprics of Dorpat [Tartu], Ösel–Wiek and Courland). Grand Master Wolter von Plettenberg, the last outstanding leader of the Livonian Order — the strongest state-like formation in the early 16th century — managed to attain a peace which would only be guaranteed by a strong military presence. However, after von Plettenberg’s death in 1535 there was no political authority who would recruit local military forces and restrain the squabbles between the Order and the bishops. In addition to political division, Livonian society was weakened by the religious split in the 1520s resulting from the Reformation. Martin Luther’s teaching was soon embraced by the secular and clerical circles of larger cities; the nobility preferred to remain Catholics. So too did the Livonian Order, as an institution, though von Plettenberg’s successors were converted to Lutheranism.

The geographical position of Livonia between Russia and Western Europe promoted the transit trade, especially as these were boom years for farming in Europe. The urban population in particular benefited from economic growth, though the same was true of other classes. However, social tensions increased between town and country, feudal lords and peasants, merchants and artisans, Germans and non-Germans (mostly Estonians). These internal problems put the Livonians off guard as to their neighbours’ intentions and weakened their military potential.

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