Foreign conquest and formation of a new administrative division

Christian religion nevertheless failed to assert itself in Estonia without military force. Several different and often competing religious and lay powers participated in a determined effort to conquer the Eastern coast of the Baltic Sea: the papal curia, the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (to whom the pope had granted the right to conduct missionary work in North Estonia already in the mid-9th century), the Teutonic Order (which relocated from the Holy Land to Poland and Prussia), and the Danish and Swedish crowns.

The German expansion that had started in the late 12th century, in the areas of Livonians and Latgals by the Daugava River, reached Estonia in 1208 when the crusaders took the important South Estonian castle of Otepää. Even earlier, in 1206, the Danish army under the command of Anders Sunesen, archbishop of Lund, had attempted in vain to settle in Saaremaa, the largest and wealthiest Estonian island. It does not mean that the Christian world had not been interested in Estonia before — as early as the 1170s, the Holy See had tried to send its missionary bishop here. It is possible that the Orthodox church had attempted the same, from Novgorod or Polotsk, although there is no written evidence to prove it.

Compared with various other countries around the Baltic Sea, Christianity arrived in Estonia relatively late. In circumstances where state administration with a central government was not yet fully developed, Christianity was mostly imported by an independently functioning foreign mission. The area’s late Christian invasion could partly have been the result of the fact that the country was not economically attractive. This area acquired a significant position between the Eastern and Western trade transit comparable to the Viking era eastern route (Austrvegr — waterway connecting Scandinavia with Byzantium and Islamic Central Asia along the great Russian rivers) only after the conquest, Christianisation and the emergence of towns. Before the 13th century, the main transit route between Russia and West Europe was the Daugava River. Considering the level of navigation at the time, its geographical position was much more suitable and natural for this purpose than the Northern and Western Estonian coastal areas. Another reason might have been the numerous political problems in the neighbouring countries which needed constant attention — the countries were centralising around the royal power in Denmark and Sweden, and the primary concern of the German Eastern colonisation was to break the opposition of West Slavic tribes.

Simultaneously with the activity of the first bishops, the newly established towns got their first cathedrals and churches. The building of the Tallinn Cathedral probably started in the late 1220s, the one in Tartu in the second half of the 13th century. Data about the churches in rural areas are scarce, but the first parishes are mentioned as early as the first half of the 13th century. Those coincided territorially more or less with ancient administrative units.

The first Danish bishops in North Estonia could not establish a bishopric and a cathedral chapter either. The history of the Tallinn bishopric starts in 1240 when the Danish king donated land for maintaining the bishop and cathedral chapter. After Riga became an archbishopric in 1255, the Dorpat and Ösel–Wiek bishops remained subordinated to the Riga archbishop; since the conquest of North Estonia, the Reval bishopric was subordinated to the archbishop of Lund.

Theoderich was a typical missionary bishop — he had no fixed residence or cathedral chapter. After the pagans killed Theoderich in 1219, bishop Albert named his brother Hermann the bishop for Estonian territory under the name of the bishop of Leal (Lihula). In 1224, Hermann became the bishop of Dorpat; Lihula remained the residence of the bishop of Ösel–Wiek. In 1279 the Ösel–Wiek bishop moved permanently to Haapsalu.

The formation of the church administration, i.e. the bishoprics and cathedral chapters on Estonian territory continued throughout the entire 13th century. The first bishop Theoderich who carried the title of the bishop of Estonia, was appointed in 1211 by Albert, bishop of Riga. The former Bremen canon Albert Buxhövden was one of the key figures of the Christianisation and conquest of Livonia. He was busy organising the mission since being ordained bishop in 1199 until his death in 1229.

The conquest ended with North Estonia in the possession of the Danish crown, South and West Estonia and the islands divided between the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order and the Dorpat (Tartu) and the Ösel–Wiek (Saare–Lääne) bishops. Whereas the latter two had, in addition to the ecclesiastical authority in their domain, also lay authority, the Reval (Tallinn) bishop had no such right in his bishopric.

Although the most important military events took place during the first three decades, it took almost the entire 13th century to fully conquer the territory of Estonia and Latvia and shape the new administrative system. Both the crusaders and the local people of Livonia — continental Estonians, Osilians (inhabitants of the largest island, Saaremaa [German Ösel, Latin Osilia]), Latgals, Livs, Curonians — were disunited and divisions were evident in both camps. Ancient feuds enabled the conquerors to play the tribes off against one another. The more so that the motives for resisting the alien forces were often economic, rather than of an ethnic nature.

The role of the papal curia and European crusaders in invading Livonia (approximately the area of modern Estonia and Latvia which has also been called Old Livonia) is controversial. The pope who wished to extend the sphere of influence of the Catholic church in the east, simultaneously keeping an eye on the Greek Catholic areas, had no military means. At the same time, the ever fiercer attacks of the Muslims considerably weakened the crusaders’ position in the Holy Land, and energy had to be redirected into new conquests. The combat readiness of the crusaders, mostly of German origin, was directly associated with the general eastwards expansion during the 12th–13th centuries of the Germans who had adopted Christianity a few centuries earlier. They thus primarily represented the interests of German landowners; the latter often clashed with the papal interests. The roots of this contradiction reached as far as the ancient enmity of the Holy Roman emperor and German landlords with the Holy See. This was caused by the postulate, continually emphasised since the 11th century, about the supremacy of religious power over lay power. In Livonian power politics of the 13th century this was reflected in the fact that the Pope often tended to side with the Danish, rather than German crusaders.

An important political role in Livonia was played by the Bishop of Modena, Guillelmus (in German tradition known as Wilhelm of Modena), who frequently visited the Baltic and Nordic countries in the early 13th century as the pope’s legate. During his legateship, Guillelmus twice came to Estonia, visiting various places, regulating the feuds arising between alien powers, and preaching to locals. One of his greatest diplomatic achievements was the restoration of Danish power in North Estonia in 1238, after the territory had temporarily been occupied by the Order of the Brothers of the Sword which consisted of German crusaders.

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