With fire and sword

German historians see Balts of 12th and 13th century as barbarians and savages, to whom they have given advanced culture and religion level (and as a pay for this enlightenment they overtook their land, freedom and independence). The latest archaeological researches prove they are wrong. The Baltic culture development of those centuries have been achieved culture level that even neighbouring nations was inspired by them. The Balts had a unique folk art and their own writing symbols. Gifted craftsmen made luxurious and durable clothes for celebrations and weekdays, weapons, tools and bijouterie. To protect themselves from intruders, our ancestors (Semigalls, Latgalls, Kurshi, etc.) built castles on stand-up hills. Castles with towns inside them with population more than thousand was in Talsi, Tervete, Mezotne, Jersika, Kuldiga, etc. Chronics telling about hospitality of ancient Prussians say, there was no beggars – the richest people supported poor tribe members and even a thief was freed, if he could prove that he had stolen for food.

People believed in Father of Sky – God, Mother of Earth – Mara and spirits who helped her: Mother of Forest, Mother of Wind etc. People believed afterlife condition ‘Velis’, also may be understood as “man’s spirit’. ‘Velis’ is sent to afterlife land – land of ‘velis’, where goddess called Mother of ‘Velis’ overrules him. There were also other significant gods: Thunder, who sent rain to farm fields, punished enemies, Laima – a people destiny chooser, life giver and path indicatory.

When the nature seasons changed and when doing important farming jobs, a celebrations of solstice was held – winter solstice, spring solstice, summer celebrations – ‘Jani’ (Midsummer day), etc. Unique phenomena of Latvian nation in worldwide culture are folksongs, written by whole Latvian nation. Rarely there is a nation who has more folk songs than Latvians do. As European scientists approved it, the amount of Latvian folksongs has a more than 1 million of quatrains. It testifies that Latvian ancestors was a wealthy singers and song lovers. Men were playing music instruments – pipes, trumpets, “kokles” (similar to Finnish kantele) and bagpipes while women composed and sang songs. These folk songs was sang also in occasions when gave advices and expressed gratitude.

Nations of ancient Latvia traded and shared between tribes their secrets of farming and other mastering skills. Trading paths with Sweden, Denmark, Russia and Norway (known as Vikings) were also successful. But those foreign neighbours also tried to conquer our ancestors to multiply their fortune. Aggressors started to spread their religion – Catholicism. But these aggressors were unable to conquer free Baltic tribes. As chronics tells, in 1106 in the coasts of Daugava tribe of Semigalls in battle won Russian army, who lost about 9000 men. Tribe of Latgalls several times invaded into Russian lands, revenging for their local casualties. Kurshi fought and won victories over Vikings in sea fight and in close combat. About year 854 Kurshi were able to destroy ships of Denmark tribes and won silver, gold and weapon trophies. Because Kurshi had excellent ships, they were able to revenge Scandinavians for their invasions and fight on their land. As evidence, there is the coastal church in Denmark with a text that says: “God, please help us against Kurshi!”

Since 12th century in Baltic seaports German traders were more and more seen. They were searching for new marketplaces to expand their power over trading paths. Also the noble people and Catholic Church paid their attention to Baltic region, trying to conquer new lands, where tax could be collected.

By the thoughts of church – those who didn’t believe them were unrightfully using their God’s land and must to baptise or die. In the middle of 12th century in Germany was organised a Crusade against people of south side of Baltic Sea.

German traders frequently started to come to the port at entrance of river Daugava, where they traded with tribe of Libiesi and their neighbours. They spied and took information about situation and how blindly sacrifices were held worshipping creatures of water, trees and unholy beings. Someday the trade ships brought to Latvia a monk named Meinhard.

Meinhard started to propagate Christian believes to coastal tribes. In 1184 year Germans built a church in Ikskile and when Meinhard was nominated to post of bishop, this church becomes a bishopric for him. Meinhard also with help of Gottland’s craftsmen built stone castles for people of Ikskile and Salaspils. For this action, those people had to sworn to baptize. Until these buildings in Latvia were no stone buildings, all castles were built from wood. However after buildings were finished, local people breach their promises. When Meinhard felt, that his mission will fail, he started to organise crusade from Germany, however with no response. In 1196 he died, failed to succeed.

Bertold was nominated as the new bishop, who forced tribes to baptise with help of crusaders, but in 1198 year some tribe member called Imauts killed him in fight. The forced belief was automatically abandoned. The people thought that they could free themselves from Christianity by swimming in Daugava and wash themselves clear.

After Bishops dead, bishop Albert was his successor – active and wise pastor, who organised crusades to noncompliant tribes and used all disagreements between Baltic tribes. In 1201 year he ordered to build fortified settlement between tribes of Kurshi and Libiesi. This place, further called Riga, became a base for German invasion in Baltic region. A resident armed force was founded as army union – Holy Order of Brothers of Swords – ‘Zobenbralu Ordenis’. The leader of this army was bishop Albert. The field of this Order was adventurers, marauders, robbers and all other, who were unwanted persons or wanted by judges in Germany. Bishop also started to give local land property rights as a presents to members of Order, in exchange they had to cast in military campaigns.

In open combats or in destroying of farm fields or by taking important hostages who were close to tribe leaders, bishop Albert forced again local tribes to baptise themselves and subdue to the power of bishop by paying the taxes to church and to support other clergypersons and also to cast in further conquests of other Latvian lands. In 1203 with the German forces that moved back to Germany, a ruler of Turaida, chief Kaupo also sailed away with them. He went to Rome, where Pope admitted him. The trip impressions about never seen European cities, markets-full-of-people, buildings and beautiful churches made Kaupo to an enthusiastic admirer of Christian religion and allied of bishop Albert. In 1206 in lands of Libiesi a revolt started against German forces. The leader of revolt was elder Ako, supported also by forces of Lithuanian tribes. But in battle with crusaders, forces of revolt were defeated and a head of Ako was given as a present to bishop Albert. All other forces of Libiesi were forced to give up and in 1207 bishop and Order split lands of Libiesi.

After defeating Libiesi, Albert started to look after lands of Seli. Selpils was encircled and conquered mostly by archers who shot down forces on palace’s walls. After a desperate opposition, Seli were forced to beg for mercy and peace, promising to baptise and pay taxes. The ruler of Koknese – Vatseki was forced by bishop Albert to welcome crusaders into his palace. However in one opportunity he succeeded to vanquish them. However, when he heard that in Riga was gathered new army against him, he burned down his palace and went to Russia and after that to Estonian lands. To Koknese were sent bishop’s warriors, who forced local people to start build a new stone castle in the place of previous one. The ruins of this castle still can be seen.

At beginnings, the Kurshi and Semigalls had a peace agreement with crusaders. They tried to keep away from possible crusader invasions. For bishop Albert this peace was also a gain, he could send all forces against Libiesi and Latgalls. Ruler of Semigalls – Viestards, even started to help crusaders in their missions against his enemies Libiesi and Lithuania tribes. If he could foresee, that in near future they will be allies and he – an enemy of Germans!

Kurshi were first, who felt unsafe about their future and started to protect them. In 1210 Kurshi were able to defeat German ships in Irbe channel and there were counted more than 30 crusader casualties. Libiesi, Kurshi, Semigalls, Lithuanians and Russians started to think over plan how to conquer Riga and defeat whole German army.

In the morning of 12th July, the citizens of Riga when looking on Daugava River saw it full of boats and ships of Kurshi that looked like a pitch-black cloud. The alarm bell started to ring, when Kurshi surrounded the city. But after the mean fights, which longed whole day, they resigned however their allies in this battle were missing. This attack was the meanest attack to Riga in whole 13th century and one of major danger to German forces at all. Kurshi tried to attack Riga together with Semigalls in 1228, but they only succeeded to capture fortified dungeon of Daugavgriva just before Riga.


In 1219 Semigalls of Mezotne accepted the Christian religion and welcomed German forces to their castle. When tribe leader Viestards was informed by this step he declared war against Mezotne, because he understood how danger it was if Germans were present in territory of Semigallia. When Semigalls defeated Germans who travelled by river Misa to castle of Mezotne, those who were left in Mezotne escaped to Riga for help.

Bishop Albert gathered army of 8000 men and attacked castle of Mezotne, who had rejected Christianity. The attacking forces were too large in numbers so Semigalls gave up. When the 100 elders came out of castle as a sign of surrender, they were killed unfaithfully. Those who were left in castle immediately restarted the battle, but they were defeated. The wooden castle was robbed and burned down.

In September of 1236 Folkvin, the leader of Brothers of Sword Order, gathered large army from crusaders, Order brothers, 200 warriors from Russia, conquered tribes of Libiesi, Latgalls and also people from Estonia. By fighting and robbing they moved through Semigallia to lands of Lithuania. In the way back to their base fortress in Latvia they had a captured large amount of valuables and goods. When they were in region of Saule (Sun) camping on some island in swamp, the army discovered that enemies enveloped them – by the remains of Semigalls and Lithuanian army. German enemies successfully chose the battleground. All possible escape paths easily could be cut and in night it would be easy to defeat rest of the army. As chronicles of Order say, the army was simply slaughtered and there were only few survive of many who were able to run. The heavy German cavalry with full armour and horses stuck in swamp and was easy target – unable even to protect themselves. All army was completely destroyed including leader of Order. From 2000 to 3000 man army, from each ten soldiers returned only one.

However scientists still argue where this battlefield really was – there are several versions, most popular are that battle happened in territory of Latvia, in village “Vecsaule” or near Lithuanian town Sauliau. The results of battle prevented Germans to attack Russia, freed Semigalls and Kurshi from influence of Order and proved Lithuania as growing military force.

In 1260 tribes of Zemaishi (Lithuania) and Kurshi defeated allied forces of German Order and Order of Livonia, who organised campaigns to Lithuania. In this battle all opposed tribes had to take a part, so originally Kurshi were a part of German forces in this battle. Durbe was the place where Germans met army of Zemaishi. When the battle begun, Kurshi changed the fighting side joining army of Zemaishi. Together they won army, which were not only from German soldiers, but also from Dutch and Swedish knights. In this battle died the leaders of both German Orders and more than 150 Order brothers, not even mentioning thousand of knights, who were followed when tried to escape and was slaughtered on way. This was the largest battle in Eastern Europe of 13th century and largest defeat of German forces in Latvia.

After the battle Kurshi regained their freedom. Also Prussians revolted and were led by Erkus Mant. Some of German castles were captured and German situation in Baltic were unstable because of great casualties. The ruler of Lithuania – Mindaugs rejected Christianity and joined fighting forces of Kurshi and Prussians. After several battle ages, Prussians were almost reached total freedom from Germans. Germans were helpless trying to fortify their positions and were forced to burn farms and kill peasants. Therefore starvation started and once rich country was turned into poor. A new campaign started and German military force was regained. In 1267 year Kurshi signed treaty, promising to pay grants. In 1272 year Semigalls signed peace with Germans and also Prussians were weak after years of fighting, they have also lost their leader Mant.

In 5th March of 1279 year leader of Semigalls – Nameisis and leader of Lithuania – Traidenis beat German forces. In this battle died leader of German forces and also 71 warriors. This battle is similar to battle of Sun, and the result of battle encouraged tribes to revolt once more. By leading of ruler Nameisis, Semigalls were able to gain control of Tervete castle. In this battle some German gave important help by name Bertold, who knew history of Semigalls and wanted to help them. He taught soldiers how to use archer’s bows and this skill was important in gaining victory. Nameisis led his army, conquering all territory of Semigallia and also pushing Riga to deal peace treaty with him. He also led his army to territories of Prussia, but there he was killed.

In 1287 Semigalls won their last victory at Garoza over German intruders. In this battle leaders of both sides died, however in future there were small numbers of Latvian tribes who could stand against growing numbers of crusaders. Territory of Semigallia was ruined in battles and in year 1290 Semigalls left their last German free castle and headed to Lithuania. Those Balts – Kurshi, Semigalls, Latgalls and Prussians – choose better to leave their homelands than be for slaves for intruders. Their lands were completely destroyed, people killed, castles and houses burned down. All of them continued to fight for their freedom in Lithuanian army.

So the battles for independence, which lasted more than a century, were ended…

One of mightiest Semigalls’ castle-hills of ancient times, located in Tervete.


This is just very short course in these happenings, there are many books about these events and there are still standing castle hills as quiescent witnesses about those times…