The Duke's Court

Although the dukes did not succeed in obtaining absolute power, the court represented the political, administrative and cultural centre of the Duchy of Courland. The most important task of the court as an institution was to represent the ruler's authority. This aim was furthered through various court ceremonies, including funerals. Throughout Europe, the establishment of the burial vault of the ruling family in one of the castles gave it the status of the residence and symbolised the hope that the dynasty would last. In the Duchy of Courland the funeral was one of the events expressing most vividly the honour given to the duke as ruler. The Dukes of Courland followed the fashion trends of their time and strove for a standard of life equal to that of other rulers. Unfortunately, we have very sparse information about the celebrations held by the dukes. Hunting was one of the main pastimes in this period, and was also very popular in the Duchy of Courland.

1. Training for the tournament. Circa 1600. Drawing in the memorial album of Johann Hieronymus Rörscheidt. LVVA, Collection 5759, Inventory 2, File 1403.

Tournaments or knights' games (Ritterspiele) survived in many places in the 16th–18th century as an element of courtly games.

2. Instruction from Duke Frederick to his envoys at the court of Sigismund III of Poland. Bauske/Bauska, 30 May 1592. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 61.

Bartold Buttler and Samuel von Wolpen were to thank King Sigismund in the name of the duke for the invitation to his wedding and the offer to take part in the tournament. Since the letter from Poland had arrived very late, the duke was unable to attend, and the envoys should apologise for this to the king.

3. Invitation from Duke Gotthard to Paul Oderborn, Lutheran Pastor of Kaunas. Mitau/Jelgava, 8 December 1585. Draft. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 1038.

In the age of the Kettlers, only one wedding celebration was ever held in Mitau/Jelgava Castle. On 2 January 1586 Gotthard's eldest daughter Anna (1571–1617) married Albrecht Radziwiłł (1558–1592), the Count of Olyka-Nesvizh, Marshal of the Lithuanian Court and Administrator of Kaunas (1558–1592). Among the invited guests was Paul Oderborn (?–1604), who in 1587 became pastor at the Church of St Peter in Riga, Duke Frederick's court pastor in 1593 and Superintendent of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Courland in 1597.

4. Letter from Duke Frederick to Elisabeth Magdalena, written in his own hand. Neuhof/Vecumnieki. 19 November 1634. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 207.

Having noticed in the calendar that the next day is the duchess' name day, Frederick wishes her good health and a long life.

5. Letter from Simon Isenhafern to Duke Gotthard.Tuckum/Tukums, 26 June 1577. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 26, Volume VIII.

The manager of Tuckum/Tukums-Manor sends the duke three bearskins, humbly begs him to accept them and apologises that they are still slightly damp, because the bears had been hunted down very recently.

6. Letter from Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena to Duke James. Doblen/Dobele, 26 August / 5 September 1644. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 198.

The duchess thanks James for the 20 hares he has sent. She wished to prepare the meat to be consumed at court later, but some 10 hares more were needed to make up half a barrel. Accordingly, Elisabeth Magdalena wishes the duke “joy and luck in hunting”.

7. Letter from Boguslaw XIV, Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, to Duke Frederick. Old Stettin, 11 March 1622. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 90.

In advance of the hunting season, Boguslaw asks Frederick to help him out by sending two ‘packs’ (Koppel) of good, strong Courland hunting dogs, since he himself is short of them. The hunting dogs bred in Courland were highly valued and were often sent as diplomatic gifts to foreign rulers.

8. Letter from King James of England to Duke William. Westminster, 3 February 1614. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 88.

The King of England expresses his gratitude to William for the hunting falcons he has sent him. Falcons are very frequently mentioned in 17th century documents as gifts from the Dukes of Courland to foreign rulers.

9. Family tree of the Dukes of Courland. 17th century. LVVA, Collection 1100, Inventory 13, File 717.

In the 16th and 17th century the drawing of genealogical tables became fashionable, but was also vitally important for rulers. The nobler the ancestors mentioned in the family tree, the greater the prestige of the dynasty. Accordingly, genealogies were partially or entirely made up. Duke James also strove to emphasise the importance of the house of the Dukes of Courland by starting the history of his family with Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316–1378, emperor from 1355).

10. Letter from Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena to Duke Frederick. Annenburg/Emburga, 8/18 October 1637. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 208.

The duchess writes that her health has improved slightly and sends her regards to her husband and Duke James. The duchess’s letter was accompanied by 15 bunches of grapes from the garden of Doblen/Dobele Castle, three shocks of walnuts (180 nuts), 40 apples and 40 pears, which she had “recently received from Pomerania”.

11. Letter from Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena to Duke James. Doblen/Dobele, 23 April / 3 May 1644. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 198, Page 39.

The duchess writes that 14 days earlier she has sent two two-horse carts accompanied by her wine-master to Windau/Ventspils, in order to bring the Rhenish wine that had been supplied by ship. On the way there, all had gone well, but on the way back, when they reached the bridge over the River Abau/Abava a disaster had occurred. The first cart of wine had successfully crossed the bridge, and the second had almost crossed, too, when one of the bridge timbers had broken and the cart had fallen into the river. The wine barrel had fallen onto a log in the river and its bottom had been knocked out. The wine-master and a servant had only just managed to escape. Most of the wine had poured out, much to the disappointment of the duchess, since this was good “drinking wine”.

12. Invoice from Riga merchant Arend Samson to Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena. Riga, 12 February 1640. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 220.

The invoice mentions a variety of fruit, for example 50 oranges, 75 lemons, fresh pears, trees that had been brought from Lübeck, textiles, 4 pounds of white cotton, prayer books and other goods, with a value of more than 247 thalers.


13. List of wage debts. Mitau/Jelgava, 2 May 1639. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 401.

In the time of the dukes, the state economy was personified as the duke’s ‘household economy’. This meant that state income was not separated from the personal income of the duke. All income came into the state treasury, which was referred to as the duke’s Fiscal Chamber. The funds managed by the chamber were used to maintain not only the duke’s family and the court, but also the administrative apparatus of the state. Accordingly, there was one list of salaries that included the highest state officials and the servants of the duke. Because of a shortage of cash, wage payments were often delayed, but officials were entitled to free board and lodgings, and part of the wage was paid in kind.

14. The accounts of the duke's court. First third of the 17th century. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 45.

The duke's money was also used to pay the staff of judicial institutions, for example the ministerials (Ministerial), who delivered court summons. There was one such official in each of the four courts of first instance in Courland: Tuckum/Tukums, Goldingen/Kuldīga, Mitau/Jelgava and Selburg/Sēlpils.

15. The accounts of the duke's court. First third of the 17th century. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 3, File 45.

After Duke James returned to Courland, new servants were hired for him. The list of wage payments mentions, for example, the prince's stable boy Michel Kolbing, the prince's chamberlain Johann, the cook Lorenz and the washerwoman Anna.

16. Duke Friedrich's book of expenses. Early 17th century. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 70.

A certain part of the duke's expenditure was for the purchase of various luxury goods for the needs of the court. For example, in 1606, Duke Frederick bought 66 ahms 4 quarts of wine (about 100 litres), which cost a total of 1650 thalers.

17. Description of the funeral ceremony of Duke Frederick. 1643. Excerpt. LVVA, Collection 554, Inventory 1, File 99.

Duke Frederick died on 16 August 1642. On 18 February 1643 his remains were placed in Trinity Church, Mitau/Jelgava, and on 22 February, to the sound of the church bells, drums and trumpets, they were solemnly taken to the castle. The coffin was borne by 20 nobles. Altogether, several hundred people took part in the funeral procession: pastors, officials and servants, representatives of the towns and nobility. The King of Poland, the Electors of Brandenburg and Saxony, and other rulers were represented by 165 delegates.

18. The funeral procession of Duke Frederick. Detail of a 17th century engraving. LVVA, Collection 5759, Inventory 2, File 284.

The engraving consisted of several parts and was about 2.5 m long. This fragment shows the last part of the procession: women in mourning dress. The men had black cloaks with white collars, and black bands tied to their hats. The drums were covered in black fabric, embroidered with the arms of the duchy, and the trumpets, too, were adorned with black pennants.

20. The skull of Duchess Anna. Photo from 1884. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 2, File 262.

19. The skull of Duke Gotthard. Photo from 1884. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 2, File 262.

21. The skull of Duke William. Photo from 1884. LVVA, Collection 640, Inventory 2, File 262.

22. Letter from Elisabeth Magdalena to Duke James. Doblen/Dobele, 25 November / 5 December 1644. LVVA, Collection 5759, Inventory 2, File 1318.

The duchess asks Duke James to send her a woodcarver to Doblen/Dobele, who might create a wooden model for the reliefs of her arms on her sarcophagus. This woodcarver was Tobias Heintz, who had also worked on the altar commissioned by the duchess for Trinity Church in Mitau/Jelgava.

23. The sarcophagus of Duchess Elisabeth Magdalena in the ducal vault in Mitau/Jelgava Castle. Photo from the collections of Rundāle Palace Museum.

The sarcophagus was made by Mitau/Jelgava tin founder Franz Warnraht in 1645. The head and sides of the sarcophagus are adorned with reliefs showing the arms of the duchess's native Pomerania-Wolgast.