The 450th anniversary of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia


The collapse of the Livonian Confederation and the Establishment of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was one of the main events marking the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era in the area of present-day Latvia. The Establishment of the Duchy was envisaged in the Agreement of Vilnius (Pacta Subiectionis) concluded on 28 November 1561 by Gotthard Kettler, the last Master of the Livonian Order, and Sigismund II Augustus, King of Poland-Lithuania. Following the dissolution of the Livonian Order on 5 March 1562 Gotthard Kettler became the first Duke of Courland, and soon established the Kettler dynasty, which ruled the duchy until 1737. The Duchy of Courland remained in existence right up to 1795, when, in the course of the Third Partition of Poland, it was annexed by the Russian Empire. We may say that from the second half of the 16th up to the end of the 18th century the duchy represented statehood within the area populated by Latvians, because at that time the rest of the territory that is nowadays Latvia was divided between other states (Poland-Lithuania, Sweden).

Because of the activities of the Dukes of Courland, the latest technology of the time came into use in the duchy, trading contacts were extended and the population became acquainted with developments in various fields of life. The dukes had dynastic and diplomatic links with almost the whole of Europe, and their trading interests reached the farthest corners of the world. Many foreigners – craftsmen, merchants or simply refugees – settled in the duchy, and were accepted without discrimination on religious grounds. This led to the gradual development of an unusual kind of multicultural society in the duchy, although this did not alter the strict division into social strata and the granting of legal rights exclusively to ‘Germans’, completely ousting ‘non-Germans’ from political life. However, it was the ‘non-Germans’ (mostly Latvians) whose labour provided the economic basis of the duchy.

Until now, because of the romantic approach adopted by historians during the 19th and 20th century, the public tends to associate the Duchy of Courland almost exclusively with the figure of Duke James (Jacob). Extolling James’ achievements, many researchers and writers have undeservedly passed over the activities of his predecessors and condemned his successors. The creators of the exhibition hope to change this conception of history to some degree. In chronological terms, the exhibition covers the first 80 years of the duchy’s existence, i.e. the period from the founding of the duchy in 1561/1562 until the accession of Duke James in 1642. However, since Elisabeth Magdalena, the wife of Duke Frederick, remained active after she was widowed, for example, re-establishing the town of Neustädtchen/ Jaunpilsētiņa after the destruction of the Polish-Swedish War as Friedrichstadt /Jaunjelgava in 1646, some later documents are also exhibited.