Swedish, Danish, Russian and Polish-Lithuanian wars for Estonia

Livonia maintained stable relations with Russia until the mid-16th century; from then onwards, Muscovite tsars began to increase diplomatic pressure. Referring to the 11th-century military conquests by the princes of the Kievan Rus, in the course of which a portion of Estonian territory had been subjected, Moscow claimed south-east Estonia as ‘the heritage of its ancestors’. With the increasing threat from Moscow, Livonia invoked its subjection to the Holy Roman Empire and sought the support of Charles V (ruled 1519–1558) and the Hanseatic League. Since the Hanseatic cities and the Livonian cities had been contending for the trade between Russia and Western Europe, this precluded military assistance. Charles V, an ambitious ruler, had claimed control of Livonia; but as he was engaged in continuous warfare (in Germany, Italy and France), Livonia was of secondary importance to him. Livonia’s attempts to find allies in the face of the imminent threat from Moscow came too late and were fruitless.

In 1558 the Russian troops crossed the border of the Dorpat (Tartu) bishopric and advanced quickly, pillaging and ravaging the countryside to break down the resistance of the local authorities. The central force of the advancing army was the cavalry of the lately subjugated Tatars. The contemporary chronicles (e.g. a book written about the outbreak of the war by the Tartu canon Bredenbach) described the shocking military acts of the Tatars, which seemed incredibly cruel to the Livonian people who had so far only waged war with Pskov or Novgorod Russians. By 1561 Russian forces had captured the Dorpat (Tartu) bishopric and a portion of the territory of the Livonian Order; Moscow ruled the larger part of the conquered area until 1582.

Russian military success was not viewed favourably by Poland, Sweden and Denmark, who intervened with help from the Livonian Order and the bishops. In 1559 Denmark had bought Western Estonia and the islands from the Ösel–Wiek bishopric. King Gustav Vasa of Sweden tried to maintain stable relations with Russia and kept a wary eye on the events in Livonia. The expansion of Danish territories encouraged the Swedes to take action. The cautious Gustav Vasa was succeeded in 1560 by his son Erik XIV, who was for more active involvement in Livonian politics. Erik XIV manifested his interest in Livonian events in March 1561 by sending a naval force with his ambassadors to Tallinn.

The change of power in Sweden helped to strengthen a pro-Swedish attitude: since the Livonian Order had been militarily weakened to the extent that it could not defend the country, and as a potential ally, Protestant Sweden was preferable to Catholic Poland. The city of Tallinn hoped to get Swedish support in its commercial interests, especially in view of the increasing competition from Narva. In 1561 North Estonia voluntarily accepted Swedish overlordship. The city of Tallinn and the nobility of Harju and Viru counties swore fealty to Erik XIV; North Estonia remained under the control of Sweden for the next 150 years. In the same year, Riga’s Archbishop and the Livonian Order became subjects of the Polish king Sigismund II Augustus, and South-Estonia was incorporated into the Polish–Lithuanian union. Thus medieval Livonian statehood collapsed, and the power of the Livonian Order and the bishops passed into the hands of the absolutist monarchs. The end of the Old Livonian states is regarded as the end of medieval Estonia.

The wars between Moscow, Sweden, Poland–Lithuania and Denmark for the legacy of Old Livonia continued until the 1660s. Warfare was waged here with success alternating between the protagonists, interwoven with their skirmishes in other parts (Russia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Nordic countries) and on other pretexts. As a result of the Nordic Seven Years’ War (1563–1570), Denmark lost control of Western Estonia to Sweden; in the two last decades of the 16th century, Russia was forced to surrender all captured territories in Livonia and be content with the borders drawn before the wars (Russian–Polish peace treaty, 1582; Russian–Swedish peace treaties, 1583 and 1595).

Estonian territory was now controlled by three monarchies: South Estonia (and Latvia) under the Polish–Lithuanian union, the Swedes in control of North and West Estonia, and Denmark ruling over the island of Ösel. None of the states was satisfied; relations between Poland and Sweden were further complicated by the family relationships between the two monarchies, which resulted in the adamantly Protestant Sweden accepting the rigidly Catholic king Sigismund III. In 1600 the conflict between Poland and Sweden led to open warfare, as a result of which South Estonia fell into the hands of the victorious Swedes (Sweden gained control of Tartu in 1625). The Truce of Altmark in 1629 consolidated Swedish predominance in mainland Estonia. After the war between Denmark and Sweden in 1643–1645 Denmark ceded Ösel, whereupon the whole territory of present-day Estonia was in Swedish hands.

Sweden’s main forces were committed in Germany when the Thirty-Years’ War broke out between Protestant and Catholic countries in 1618. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 allowed Sweden to annex several territories in North Germany, on the south coast of the Baltic Sea. Thus the build-up begun with the subjugation of North Estonia in 1561 led to Sweden becoming a great power. Although Sweden’s positions in Livonia were threatened in turn by Poland (Polish–Swedish war, 1654–1660) and Russia (Russian–Swedish war in 1656–1661), Swedish control over the east coast of the Baltic was undisputed until the end of the century.

Details about this article