Duke Frederick (1569–1642)

Having acceded to the throne while still under 18, Frederick ruled for 55 years altogether: the longest period of rule of any Duke of Courland. However, right up to the beginning of the 21st century his achievements went unnoticed. However, it was thanks to the wisdom of Fredrick that the duchy continued to exist as a separate state even after 1616, when Duke William was deposed from the throne. Had Frederick not succeeded in justifying himself at the Polish court in connection with the killing of the leaders of the opposition among the nobility, the brothers Magnus and Gerhard Nolde, then the Duchy of Courland might have been divided into voivodeships and attached to Lithuania. Courland might have faced the same fate, had not Frederick achieved the re-establishment of the right to the throne of Prince James (Jakob), the son of William, a task that required years of diplomatic efforts. Frederick himself had to lead military forces and rebuild the economy of the duchy, ravaged by the war. Although Frederick strove to promote the development of towns in the duchy, he was not able to secure the participation of the town citizens in the political life of the state, since the nobles would not agree to it.

1. Agreement between Dukes Frederick and William on joint rule. Mitau/ Jelgava, 23 May 1595. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 34.

In 1594 William became 20, and had come of age in accordance with the will of his father. Soon Duke Frederick transferred to William the administration of the Courland part of the duchy. In accordance with their father's will, the brothers concluded a special agreement on administration of the state. Thereafter, there were two courts in the duchy, one in Mitau/Jelgava and the other in Goldingen/Kuldīga, and each part of the duchy, Semigallia and Courland, had its own economic administration and lower judicial system. However, the diets were to be held jointly, and the supreme judicial institution, the high court, was also a joint institution.

2. Duke Friedrich. Copy of a 17th century painting by the 18th century artist Johann Christian Hohl. Photo from the collections of Rundāle Palace Museum.

3. Assurance by Duke Frederick to the nobles of the duchy. Mitau/Jelgava, 12 July 1587. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 4, File 241.

After the nobles of Courland had sworn allegiance to the new duke, Frederick promised in his own name and in the name of his brother William to observe all the rights and privileges confirmed to the nobility by their father, Duke Gotthard.

4. Report by a commission sent to Courland by the King of Poland. Hasenpoth/Aizpute, 7 May 1617. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 4, File 241.

In accordance with an instruction from King Sigismund III, the commission, led by Joannes Kucborsky, Bishop of Kulm and Pomerellia, announced that not only Semigallia, but also the Courland part of the duchy, was now to be governed by Duke Frederick. Thus, the population and officials were to obey only the instructions of Frederick.

5. Seal of Duke Frederick. 1617.

6. The constitution of the Duchy of Courland – “Formula Regiminis”. Proclaimed in Mitau/Jelgava, 18 March 1617. Title page. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 3, File 630.

The “Formula of Rule” (Formula Regiminis) was drafted by a commission of the King of Poland after Duke William had been removed from the throne because of complaints from the nobles. The constitution set out the system of rule, limiting the power of the duke in favour of the nobles. The previous decisions by the diet were revoked. Henceforth the diet was to meet at least once in two years. Previously, any noble could take part in them, but now it was restricted to deputies from among the privileged knights who had been delegated by a “political parish”. The “Formula of Rule” also introduced the Gregorian Calendar or New Style in the duchy from 1 January 1618.

7. Promise by Duke Frederick. Warsaw, 9 April 1618. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 4, File 241.

After Frederick had succeeded in absolving himself in the matter of the murder of the Nolde brothers, he went to Poland, where his right to the throne was confirmed by the Sejm. In return, he had to promise that in his actions he would strictly observe the “Formula of Rule” and all the privileges accorded to the nobility.

8. Contents of the “Statute of Courland” of 1617. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 3, File 628.

The provision of a code of laws for the duchy had been envisaged already since the 1570s, but it was finally implemented by the commission led by Bishop Kucborsky. The “Statute of Courland” (Statuta Curlandica) was proclaimed along with the “Formula of Rule”. The first part of the statute covered the functions of the courts; the second part brought together civil law; and the third set out criminal law. Although the nobles of Courland proposed that the statute be reworked already in 1622, no new code was ever approved, and the 1617 version remained in force up to the 19th century.

9. Chapter of the “Statute of Courland” on “The authority of private individuals over their serfs”. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 3, File 628.

The “Statute of Courland” stipulated that a noble’s authority over his serfs was a matter of private law. Moreover, a child whose father was a serf and whose mother enjoyed personal freedom was also designated a serf. Nobles were permitted to issue their own laws with regard to their serfs, but these were not to contradict the statute.

10. Oath of Johann Korff, manager or Amtmann of Irmlau/Irlava-Manor. Annenburg/Emburga, 26 July 1634. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 2396.

Like all other officials, the managers of the duke's manors and clerks had to give an oath of allegiance to the duke, in which they promised to discharge their duties honourably, which also meant not freeing peasants from labour duties in return for gifts.

11. Duke Frederick's regulation on the management of manors. Goldingen/ Kuldīga, 7 June 1636. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 2396.

In order to improve management of the manors, the duke issued a special regulation to manor managers, consisting of 68 articles. Among other things, it stipulated that field-ponds were to be created on the manors, the cutting of oaks and land clearance in forest was prohibited, and persons who started forest fires faced the death penalty. If the peasants were subjected to excessive labour duties or dues payments, they were allowed to complain about the lord of the manor. This regulation served as the model for the regulations on manors later issued by Duke James.

12. Book of income and expenditure of Schwethof/Svēte-Manor. 1635–1636. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1456.

On each of the duke's manors the officials were to keep a detailed record of income and expenditure. Quarterly and annual reports were to be submitted by the administrators (Amtmann) of the manors to the duke's chief of the Fiscal Chamber (Rentmeister). The economic year began after Easter.

13. Agreement between the Duchy of Courland and the city of Riga on fishing in Babbit-See/Babīte-Lake and the Semgaller-Aa/Lielupe-River. Puxtzeem/ Pukstciems, 19/29 February 1636. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1145.

Disagreements over fishing rights in lake Babbit/Babīte and the river Semgaller-Aa/Lielupe existed between the subjects of the duke and the city already since the 16th century. A major subject of dispute was the blocking of the channel, which linked the lake and the river, by nets and fish-traps. In February 1636 representatives of both sides met at village Puxtzeem/Pukstciems and agreed on fishing regulations in lake Babbit/Babīte and in the Semgaller Aa/Lielupe from its mouth as far as Kalnzeem/Kalnciems, stipulating the length of fishing nets, the number of fish-traps, etc. Night fishing was prohibited altogether.

14. Fishing locations at the mouth of Lake Babīte. 1636. Scheme. LVVA, Collection 673, Inventory 1, File 146.

15. Ratification of the fishing agreement by Riga Town Council. Riga, 3 May 1636. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1145.

Duke Frederick ratified the agreement in Goldingen/Kuldīga on 7 March 1636 (new style). The agreement provided the legal basis for changes to fishing regulations in the Babbit/Babīte district that had taken place since 1533. The agreement remained in force until the early 18th century, but did not resolve all disagreements, because in some cases each of the parties interpreted particular articles of the agreement differently.