The Late Middle Age Livonia in the foreign policy arena: Relations with Russians

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, relations with Russia became strained. Under pressure from Moscow, the conglomerate of principalities slowly turned into a unified state. The Moscow grand dukes added other Russian principalities to their domains, and in 1480 the Russians finally managed to get rid of the Mongol yoke which had prevailed over a large part of Russia in the 13th century. In 1478, Moscow conquered Novgorod and in 1510 Pskov, bordering Estonia. In 1494, the Moscow grand duke Ivan III closed the Hansa office in Novgorod. This meant a heavy blow to the eastern trading of the Hanseatic League, especially to Tallinn and Tartu whose role in transit trade diminished considerably.

The same year, Wolter von Plettenberg became the new Master of the Order’s Livonian branch. He managed to gather the forces of Old Livonia to successfully fight the invading Russians. The war which started in 1501 and has been called the Plettenberg war, culminated in 1502 with the battle of Smolino where the Russian army was beaten. Military success stabilised Livonian relations with Moscow for several decades: the truce of 1503 was afterwards extended every few years, until the start of the Livonian War.

Plettenberg can be considered one of the most gifted political leaders of Old Livonia. Ever since assuming his position, he displayed clear ambitions to transform the corporate power of the Order’s Livonian branch into his personal power. These ambitions were realised in 1525 when the Order’s Master sold Livonia to Plettenberg for 4000 guldens. This could only happen because the institutions of the Teutonic Order and the Grand Master had weakened in Prussia, a process which had started with the Order being beaten by united Polish and Lithuanian forces in the 15th century, and the West Prussian areas being incorporated into Poland in 1466. In 1526, Plettenberg was granted the right of vote at the German Reichstag. From that time on, the Order’s Livonian territories firmly belonged to the Holy Roman Empire.

The chief aim of Plettenberg’s politics was to protect the country from foreign enemies, primarily the Russians. He therefore tried to avoid internal conflicts and sought new ways to improve the defence system. Amongst other things, the emergence of a free peasant class was encouraged. This could then be used in military campaigns. On the other hand, the situation of the peasants worsened in Plettenberg’s time. During the 1501–1502 war with Russians, the Order employed numerous peasants, but in 1507 the latter were forbidden to carry arms.

After Plettenberg’s death in 1535, the subsequent masters of the Order were unable to avoid internal conflicts. Attention was no longer focused on the defence of the country, and at the outbreak of the Livonian War landowners were ill-prepared for the ensuing events. This was partly due to the peculiarities of the Order state. Whereas in other domains of the Order its structure had changed by the early 16th century and partly merged with lay institutions, in Livonia this structure successfully survived in its medieval form, i.e. as a system of relatively fragmented commanderies and bailiwicks. This kind of power arrangement was quite out-dated compared with the centralised neighbouring states, both in a political and military sense. This was one of the main reasons why the Order was so quickly beaten in the Livonian War.

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