Internal events in 14th century Old Livonia. St George’s Night Uprising

The 14th century in Estonian history is a period of tension between local landlords. It chiefly denotes the struggle between the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order and the bishops for lands and spheres of influence. The disagreements, often leading to armed conflict, even went as far as the military conquest of each other’s territories.

One of the most intriguing issues of older Estonian history, the background of which is largely unexplained even today, is the 1343–1345 uprising of Estonians against alien rule, known under the name of the St. George’s Night uprising. It started in the Danish area of North Estonia on St. George’s Day on 23 April 1343. According to the Younger Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, attributed to Bartholomeus Hoeneke, chaplain of the Master of the Order, Estonians pillaged the Padise Cistercian monastery and killed the monks and numerous German vassals. Estonians elected four leaders whom they called kings. The peasant army surrounded Tallinn and the bishop’s residence Haapsalu in West Estonia. In addition, Estonians turned to the Swedish landlord across the Gulf of Finland, the bailiffs of Turku (Åbo) and Viipuri (Viborg), with a plea for assistance, and indeed received a promise from Finland to send reinforcements.

Estonians’ hope to get military aid can be explained by the fact that Sweden, which at that time included also Finland, had for some time been quite keen on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. At least part of the North Estonian vassals would probably have welcomed the Swedish intervention, because they were worried about their future. Before the St. George’s Night uprising, Sweden had occupied several territories on the Scandinavian peninsula, taking advantage of Denmark’s weakness. Under the circumstances, the increasing Swedish interest in Danish territories was quite understandable.

Denmark was suffering acute internal political problems and was in no position to offer immediate help in pacifying the overseas province. The Danish vice-regents in Tallinn despatched an appeal for help to Burchard von Dreileben, master of the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order who was at that time waging war with Pskov. The Master of the Order set off for Tallinn without delay, interrupting his warfare on the eastern border. Estonians then sent their messengers — the four kings — to see him at the castle of the Order in Paide. A conflict arose during the negotiations, and the Estonian leaders were murdered. In the ensuing battles between Estonians and the Order, the former were beaten; Tallinn and the Harju-Viru vassals turned to the master of the Order for protection and the Turku and Viiburi navy, which had in the meantime arrived at Tallinn, was compelled to turn back.

The descriptions of the St. George’s Night uprising seem to prove the fact that in the mid-14th century, the Estonians were still a political power to be reckoned with — even in the international arena — a fact that allowed them to expect the assistance of the Turku and Viipuri bailiffs. The chronicles also refer to religious motives — it could have been an attempt to get rid of not only alien rule, but Christianity as well.

On the other hand, the uprising can also be seen as a link in the chain of peasant revolts that spread all over 14th century Europe, often having no distinct and logical economic, political or religious reasons.

The scarcity of sources does not allow us to measure the extent of the setback that the uprising caused the economy and population in Estonia. A few sources hint at havoc and years of desolation after the event. The loss of both Estonian and German lives must have had its impact, to say nothing of the ensuing economic lull. The mid-14th century setback might partly have been caused by the all-European Black Death, although there is no information about how devastating its effect was in Estonia and whether it spread in these areas at all. It is quite possible that the plague in fact hardly ever reached Estonia.

The gradual deterioration of the legal status of Estonian peasants after the suppression of the St. George’s Night uprising was quite unmistakable. The legal status of the vassals, on the other hand, was consolidated: as early as 1315, the so-called Valdemar–Eric’s feudal law (a set of legal norms compiled for North Estonia by the Danish king Erik VI Menved) determined the relationship between the landlord and vassals, the court system and guaranteed the inheritability of fiefs along the spear side.

A significant political change in North Estonia occurred in 1346 when the Danish king Valdemar IV sold his domains to the Teutonic Order. This transaction had no direct connection with the St. George’s Night uprising: Denmark, worn out by difficulties in its internal affairs and constant shortage of money, had considered selling its North Estonian possessions for at least ten years. Next year, the Master of the Order gave North Estonia to the Livonian branch of the Order, and the Order’s position in Livonia strengthened. These transactions did not mean that Danish ambitions in North and West Estonia ceased completely. For example, the Danes tried to have their say in filling the post of the Tallinn and Ösel–Wiek bishops as late as the 15th century. What kind of legal grounds they had, remains unclear.

Details about this article